For years, the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) has been on a mission to debunk the misplaced metaphors of management consultants. Among the questionable consulting concepts that the CDU has challenged: Frogs do not, in fact, rest peacefully in a lukewarm pan of water waiting to be boiled; fish do not rot from the head down; low-hanging fruit should not be picked first; the best playing fields are not level.
But now, after more than four years of metaphor demystification, the CDU rises in defense of a much-maligned metaphor — one that has been subjected to mean-spirited abuse by the ranks of management consultants: the dog and pony show. We all know what it means. It's the worst kind of put-down, a term used to describe an unspeakably lame presentation. The worst kind of PowerPoint pap.
Just how low is the regard for dog and pony shows? To find out, the CDU traveled to Denver to check with John Quick, 69, author of Dog and Pony Shows: How to Make Winning Presentations When the Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill, 1992). "It would be impossible to speak intelligently about these presentations without using the term 'bullshit,' " says Quick. "There's so much of it. Just insufferable crap."
But is there another side to the canine-equine equation? After all, when they were young and innocent, didn't the toughest-minded future consultants yearn for one — or both — of these pets? Even more to the point, should we accept at face value the notion that dogs and ponies are incapable of genuine artistry? To find out, the CDU headed to suburban Portland, Oregon, where it found Charles Chandler — better known as Lucky Chuck — who started his dog and pony show six years ago and today is one of the nation's last remaining dog and pony show impresarios. Lucky Chuck, along with Scott Rice (aka Cowboy Scott), a couple of ponies, and a pack of dogs, comprise "Lucky Chuck's Dog and Pony Show," which performs with great regularity at significant charity events and better birthday parties in the Greater Portland metropolitan area.
From the pups and ponies of Portland, the CDU traveled to Wapakoneta, Ohio, home of Dick Kohlrieser, 65, who has presented "The Dog and Pony Show" in notable traveling venues such as The Great American Circus and The Fisher Brothers Circus for three decades. He recalls his D&P heydays fondly: "I could get up to three dogs onto a pony," he says. "I even had the dogs trained to jump off the pony and hit me in the ass."
With the steadfast testimony of these seasoned veterans of the art of the barkers and neighers, the CDU is finally able to dispel a few of the negative myths that, um, dog dog and pony shows everywhere.
Myth #1: The biggest problem with dog and pony shows? Presenters are just going through the motions. Not Lucky Chuck! His pups and pacers put on a great show! Ellie, for example, a 17-month-old red heeler, leaps three feet into the air onto the back of Diana, an 8-year-old Shetland pony. Then Diana majestically trots around in a circle and makes jumps of her own. The audience, Lucky Chuck reports, is unfailingly mesmerized.
Myth #2: Dog and pony shows are, by definition, a chore and a hassle. Wrong again! "We do it because we love it," says Cowboy Scott. "We've been working with the animals for years. They're part of the family. Without them, we wouldn't have a show." Of course there are some challenges, such as ¿Por qué?, a 5-year-old Chihuahua, who, regrettably, has been known to bite the kids. "We don't use him so much," Cowboy Scott admits.
Myth #3: Criticizing someone for putting on a dog and pony show is a harmless piece of consulting fun. That's not what the CDU found. In fact, every time a consultant uses the expression to put down a presentation as ineffectual, the future of the dog and pony show industry is jeopardized. According to Dick Kolhrieser, when businesspeople use the term in a negative way, it really hurts. "Not hurts me as in hurt-me-in-the-heart hurts me, but it hurts my business." When promoting his show a few years ago, Dick encountered so many titters that he had to change the name from "The Dog and Pony Show" to "The Dog Pound Revue," and later to "The Hollywood Stunt Dog Show." Business, Kolhrieser says, has not been the same since.
Myth #4: You never learn anything worthwhile from a dog and pony show. Perhaps the ultimate victim is not the dog and pony show business, but those consultants who neglect to learn the bigger lesson from these shows. "A lot of good ideas are passed by because of narrow minds," says Lucky Chuck. "In the mundane and the silly come great opportunities." In other words, there is more to a dog and pony show than the consulting wags and neighsayers give it credit for.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.