Consultants - Get off the Gravy Train!

Consultant Debunking Unit

For some time now, the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) has been on the scent of something that's been, well, dogging the world of consulting. For years, we've all known that consulting, as a profession, is getting a little, well, dog-eared. But recently, consultants have, well, gone to the dogs — literally.

Take, for example, Guy Kawasaki's "Rules for Revolutionaries" (HarperBusiness, 1999). Kawasaki has mastered what every successful consultant needs to master: the art of getting dogs to eat their dog food — and, even more important, getting yourself to eat it too. He counsels people to "eat like a bird," "poop like an elephant," "flow with the go," and "eat your own dog food." In the best-seller "All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft" (Pocket Books, 1998), Julie Bick, another convert to canine consulting, barks, "Eat your own dog food, but don't believe your own press releases."

Underneath all of that advice rests an assumption: Dog food is considered somewhat distasteful — and that to (puppy) chow down, you need the help of a consultant. To test that premise, the CDU sicced a dogged debunker on the case.

First, the CDU went to the Web and visited Dr. P's Dog Training Library (www.uwsp.edu/acad/psych/dog/dog.htm) — a compendium of canine motivational wisdom. On the site, Dr. P offers a kennelful of advice on all things doggie: aggression, barking, digging, jumping, shyness, separation anxiety, even submissive urinating. But Dr. P offers no advice on how to get Fido to eat — maybe because it's not a problem. Also on the site, one expert contributor shares this wisdom on feeding and nutrition: "Humans have complete control over a dog's food consumption." However, that contributor continues, dogs are excellent at manipulating their owners into feeding them more, or feeding them something else. A dog may have learned that by holding out long enough, it will get something tastier — and so, refuse to eat its food. Pet-food manufacturers are aware of this doggie ploy and produce very tasty premium food. A perverse result is that most dogs continue to eat even when they are no longer hungry, because the food tastes good. So the problem isn't getting dogs to eat the dog food — it's getting them to stop!

Nevertheless, the CDU, hot on the trail, carried on. Feeling snoopy, the CDU contacted a number of companies, including Alpo, Friskies, Natura Pet Products, Ralston Purina, and Triumph Pet Industries. Finally, one alpha male emerged: Ward Johnson, owner and president of Minneapolis-based Sojourner Farms, a company that makes "natural" dog food with "human-quality ingredients." Johnson marked his territory: "Our food is highly palatable. Dogs go insane for it."

Just how difficult is it to get dogs to eat dog food? Not hard at all, according to Johnson, as long as the food contains nutrients, and sometimes even that isn't necessary — a lesson that consultants should understand instinctively.

"The major factor is the nutritional content of the food," says Johnson. "Dogs have an innate ability to seek out the nutrients they need. The more raw, natural nutrition that a company adds to its food, the more dogs will be passionate about that food. Food is a driving force in a dog's life."

For another pooch perspective, the CDU turned to Lara Strazdin, manager of communications at Iams Co. A dog's willingness to eat, she says, sometimes depends more on the breed than on the food. "A Labrador retriever," Strazdin says, "will eat a plateful of bolts and screws — and lick the plate clean."

Strazdin does admit that some dogs might be a little pickier than others and says that other companies often add sugar, garlic, and salt to their dog food to get Rover to come over. According to Strazdin, Iams hires dog "taste testers." But when it comes to being arbiters of good doggie taste, there's not a Martha Stewart among them: The pups easily choose between two bowls of food, and though they may detect minor differences in nutritional content and thus prefer one variety over another, none of them ever hesitate to eat.

So is it hard to get dogs to eat dog food? The CDU found that this dog simply doesn't hunt. But what about eating your own dog food? Is it hard to get people to dig into a little Alpo? Will man share a meal with man's best friend? Do ordinary folks discriminate between biscuits and gravy — and dog biscuits and gravy?

In order to find out, the CDU went back to Strazdin at Iams. Were any of Iams's employees required to sample the dog food as an additional backstop to quality control? Were biscuits and beef formula being ladled out in the lunchroom? No, dog food was not on the cafeteria menu. And no one in the place, from the top dog on down, was required to eat it.

But, Strazdin says, the truth has more of a bite and less of a bark: People at Iams willingly try the dog food on their own. They simply volunteer. "Most of us at Iams have tried the company's dog food," says Strazdin. And the results? "It's very bland."

With Strazdin's testimony hounding the CDU, we went back to Ward Johnson at Sojourner Farms. How valuable is the advice to "eat your own dog food"? Johnson believes that people don't need to be told to do something that comes naturally to them. "Our food is made of all human-quality ingredients," Johnson says, "so it's no big deal to eat it. We don't have any kind of formal taste-testing program. The fact of the matter is that our dog food is a lot healthier than what I normally eat. One of our employees likes it quite a bit and routinely eats it, as well as our other treats, for lunch."

The CDU canine conclusion: Eating dog food is no great achievement. The advice factories charge per hour and per book to say at great length something that we can dismiss in one kibble-size nugget: Make it with something good, and dogs — as well as people — will eat it. In the dog-eat-dog world of consulting, it's a real treat to charge for something so obvious, bland, and easy to digest. And that's a bone that's hard to swallow.

David Dorsey (dedorsey@aol.com) is a frequent contributor to Fast Company.

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