Please Don’t Feed the Consultants

Consultant Debunking Unit


Boiling frogs, dancing bears, flying butterflies. What is it about animals that attracts consultants like, well, moths to a flame? The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) has decided to deal with this obsession once and for all. Join us on a tour of the Consultants’ Zoo, where three unsuspecting species are asked to illustrate the same (wrong) lesson.


Grasshoppers Who Can’t Hop

Consultant Earle Bain from Halifax, Nova Scotia tries to get his clients to embrace change by comparing them to…grasshoppers. He says if you place a grasshopper in a jar with the lid on, the grasshopper will jump and hit its head against the lid. After it gives up, when you remove the lid, the grasshopper will stay in the jar.

The lesson for business? “I’m working with a company that recently privatized and now has competition galore. It needs to learn to leap out of the jar.”

Does living with a lid teach a grasshopper not to leap?

Dr. John Capinera, chairman of the entomology department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, took the question to the lab. He put one grasshopper each into three lid-covered jars and kept them there until they became completely passive. Then he removed the lids.

Specimen 1 jumped out immediately.
Specimen 2 crawled out calmly after 60 seconds.
Specimen 3 took its time and jumped out after three minutes.

None, it seemed, had learned to accept its limitations. “Nobody ever accused a consultant of knowing biology,” says Capinera.


Elephants Who Don’t Walk

Professor James Belasco of San Diego State University is one consultant who loves his animals. His “Flight of the Buffalo” (Warner Books, 1993) reads like a zookeeper’s manual: he advises to lead like geese, wake sleeping dogs, and avoid acting like monkeys.

But Belasco reserves the place of honor for the elephant. In “Teaching the Elephant to Dance” (Plume, 1990) Belasco writes, “Trainers shackle young elephants with heavy chains to deeply embedded stakes. In that way the elephant learns to stay in its place. Older elephants never try to leave even though they have the strength to pull the stake.” Belasco’s lesson for business? “Like powerful elephants, many companies are bound by earlier conditioned constraints.” Think of elephants as…large grasshoppers.

But would an elephant stay tethered to a paltry pin? It ain’t so, says curator Michael Keele of the Metro Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon: “That’s a slap in the face to a really intelligent animal. Elephants test their boundaries all the time.”

Monkeys Who Won’t Climb

In “Competing for the Future” (Harvard Business School Press, 1994) Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad tell this fable: Four monkeys were put in a room. In the room was a pole. At the top were bananas. Every time the monkeys tried to reach the bananas, they were sprayed with cold water. Guess what? The monkeys stopped trying. What’s more, each time a new monkey was brought in to replace one of the original four, the others quickly taught it not to climb the pole.

Hamel and Prahalad offer this business lesson: “Precedents, enacted into policy manuals, corporate processes, and training programs often outlive the particular industry context that created them.”

To evaluate this tale, the CDU turned to Dr. Claud Bramblett, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, who’s worked with hundreds of monkeys over the last 30 years. He puts it simply: “If you have bananas on a pole, you’ll lose your bananas.”


Thanks to Colin Barry of Ottawa, Ontario and John Bartol of San Francisco for suggesting these myths.