Call the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) Ishmael. This month, after more than four years of harpooning metaphors, analogies, and business books that have led consultants astray, the CDU goes after the big one, the leviathan of all consulting metaphors, the Great White Whale of metaphors and quotes that consultants have long sailed around spouting, like Ahabs bound to the back of their own Moby Dick. It is, of course, the famous saying attributed not to the Great White Whale but to the Great One, Wayne Gretzky: "Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is."
Who has used this quote? Better to ask who hasn't used it! Warren Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, uses an incarnation of the quote in the Peter F. Drucker Foundation's quarterly journal, "Leader to Leader": "As hockey great Wayne Gretzky explains, 'It ain't where the puck is, it's where the puck will be.' "
But that's just the tip of the ice rink. Consultants have skated to Gretzky's quote at breakneck speeds. Consultant Mark Henry Sebell uses it in an article for "U.S. Banker." Mettac Consulting Group, Oldring Consulting Group, the Strategy Partners Group, and the Winter Corporation are just a few of the many consulting firms that use one rendition or another of the quote on their Web sites. (ALPS Mutual Funds Services Inc. also uses it, along with the slogan "Consulting you're happy to pay for.") It even appears in a 1995 story in "Chain Store Age," in a quote attributed to Gregory D. Wylie, vice president of IBM Consulting Group.
Schooled, perhaps, by this flotilla of consultants, the nation's CEOs have latched onto Gretzky's quote as well. U S West president, chairman, and CEO Solomon Trujillo said it to USA Today. Former chairman and CEO of Monsanto Company Richard Mahoney said it to Washington University's Center for the Study of American Business. And FedEx founder Fred Smith said it to "InternetWeek."
Wait! There's more! Dr. Rita R. Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, recently told a Senate committee that the NSF is trying to follow the advice of the Great Gretzky. And U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent the 1995 graduates of Gettysburg College out into the world with the immortal words of Wayne Gretzky ringing in their ears.
The problem, of course, is figuring out how to debunk Wayne Gretzky, the most famous hockey player in history, the man who holds every meaningful NHL goal-scoring record yet whose greatest talent was setting up other players to score. How to debunk the man who set 61 NHL scoring records, led the NHL in scoring 10 times, and was the league MVP 9 times? If Wayne Gretzky said, "Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is," who is the CDU to argue?
There was nowhere else to start but with the Great One himself. Unfortunately, Gretzky refused to skate to where the CDU wanted the puck to be going. According to a form letter faxed to the CDU from his agent, Michael Barnett, Mr. Gretzky "intends to do many of the things with his wife and children that playing professional hockey for 20-plus years precluded him from doing earlier." And that does not include, presumably, answering questions about where hockey pucks have been or are going.
The CDU decided to skate not to where the puck was going but to where it had been — to Wayne's childhood idol, "Mr. Hockey" himself, Gordie Howe. As a boy, Gretzky adopted Howe's number: 9. But when Gretzky joined the pros and learned that 9 had been retired, he opted for 99. Howe's lifetime-scoring record has been surpassed by only one person — yup, Wayne Gretzky. So who better to judge Gretzky's hockey advice than Howe?
And Howe's opinion of the skate-to-where-the-puck-is-going advice? "It's not really the greatest piece of advice I've ever heard," he says. "Besides, sometimes you don't want to be where the puck is going. One time, I was anticipating a pass from [Ted] 'Teeder' Kennedy and was leaning over to get in the way of it, when Kennedy, following through, swung his stick in my eye. I had double vision for two months and had to sit out the rest of the season."
It sounds as if Gretzky's advice is badly flawed. But that's not all. "That saying? It didn't come from Wayne," adds Howe. "It came from Wayne's father, Walter." Not even Wayne's quote! But, of course, how can a consultant tell a client, "As Wayne Gretzky's daddy told him ..., " and expect to be paid for that advice? To find out more, the CDU skated to Brantford, Ontario, home of Walter Gretzky. The senior Gretzky still lives in the house where Wayne grew up; a swimming pool has replaced the famous backyard practice rink that Walter built for his young prodigy years ago.
Walter confirmed that he had originated the quote and clarified the exact wording. "The quote is 'Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been,' " Walter says. And does the truly great Gretzky consider this a good piece of advice to give to a professional hockey player — or to a hard-skating new-economy businessperson?
"Mama mia, no!" Walter says. "That advice is strictly for little kids. It's just simple basics, like the ABCs. You have to know the alphabet before you can write. And naturally, going to where the puck is going is something that pros take for granted — or they wouldn't be playing professionally. Besides, I'd never give advice to a pro. I've never played professionally in my life."
If professional experience makes a difference, the CDU decided that it would be wise to turn to someone who knows the pro game cold: Herb Brooks, who produced his own "miracle on ice," coaching the U.S. hockey team to victory over its own unassailable beast — the "unbeatable" Soviet Union hockey team — during the 1980 Olympics. Brooks now leads not whales but penguins onto the ice: The CDU caught up with him in Pittsburgh, at the Penguins's practice arena. Would Brooks ever advise his charges to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been?
"You'd have to be a real idiot to skate to where the puck used to be," Brooks says. "On the other hand, if everyone skated to where the puck is going, you'd have one big train wreck. Sometimes your job on the ice is to take the pressure off of the guy who's headed for the puck by drawing players away. And sometimes you want to skate to where the puck is, not to where it's going. When you shoot the puck into the zone, it's up for grabs — and you have to chase it."
So if the advice should never be offered to a pro, and if, in fact, there are times when the best pros don't even follow this advice, then the CDU had to know: Had the Great One ever been observed not following what is generally believed to be his own advice?
"I certainly saw him chase a puck more than once," says Rod Phillips, who, for the past 27 years, has been the voice of the Edmonton Oilers, the franchise with which Gretzky spent the first 9 seasons of his storied hockey career. Paul Fichtenbaum, hockey editor for "Sports Illustrated," corroborated that claim. "I've even seen him pressure a puck carrier, which would mean skating to where the puck is, not to where it's going," he says. Wayne Gretzky, spotted skating to where the puck is, not to where it's going!
But the CDU's whale tale wouldn't be complete without a visit to Wayne Gretzky's Restaurant, appropriately located at 99 Blue Jays Way, in Toronto. The CDU asked chef Richard Prentice, Do his waiters, busboys, and chefs skate to where the puck is going? "I can't say we do much skating around here," Prentice says. "And we don't serve skate either. Not much demand for it, I don't think. And while we do have a Powerplay pizza and a Hat Trick sandwich, we decided against offering a 'puck burger.' Connotes the wrong kind of image, if you know what I mean. Our burger is called the Great One, and the only skating it does is straight to the table." Presumably, to where the diners are, not to where they're going.
Sidebar: Get the Puck out of Here!
"Hockey great Wayne Gretzky was once asked the secret of his success. 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,' he said."
— Ron Hanser, PR consultant, West Des Moines, Iowa, in "Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter," July 21, 1999
"Asked about the basis for his phenomenal success, hockey great Wayne Gretsky [sic] once responded, 'I don't skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.' Bankers can learn a lot from that statement."
— Mark Henry Sebell, president and founder of Creative Realities Inc., in "U.S. Banker," October 1997
"'Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it's been' (Wayne Gretzky). For me, this is a call to prepare students for their future, not for our past."
— Daniel E. Kinnamam, education consultant and codirector of the Atlanta-based Technology Learning Professional Development Institute, in "Technology & Learning," January 1996
"There is a vast space yet to be pioneered. You skate where the puck is going."
— Douglas L. Wolford, general manager of Network Solutions, in "Business Week," March 13, 2000
"We believe in the wisdom once expressed by the hockey star Wayne Gretzky, who explained his success by saying, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.'"
— Norman R. Augustine, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., in the "Harvard Business Review," May-June 1997
Research assistance for this sidebar provided by Zoë Barton.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.