Kay on Consultants

by F.

Ever read the Harvard Business Review and think, “This is just shite!” If so, you’ll enjoy this parable from one of my favorite writers, the economist John Kay. He wrote a wonderful piece on management consultants a while back. Here’s part of it:

A tortoise had lived contentedly in the marshes on the edge of a large plain for many years. But it was no longer content. The problem was the athletics contests. The tortoise did well in some events, such as hide-and-seek and limbo dancing. But not in the races. In every event, from the 100m to cross-country, the tortoise was left behind by the other competitors. Especially by the hares.

Like anyone who is not sure what to do, the tortoise turned to management consultants. It was soon surrounded by MBAs from the finest business schools. They listened intently to the tortoise’s concerns. They measured the dimensions of the tortoise and the way it moved. They held in-depth interviews with other tortoises and with hares.

They returned with diagnoses and recommendations, a senior partner and a van full of audio-visual equipment. The reason the tortoise kept losing races was that tortoises could not run as fast as hares. Their PowerPoint slides and a video that showed hares regularly overtaking tortoises showed this conclusively. The tortoise was impressed. “I can see why these young people earn such high salaries. They have learnt to listen to the client and to identify the source of his concern.”

But there was better to come. The consultants explained that the tortoise could not run as fast as the hare because the tortoise had short legs and a heavy body. An elegant diagram summarised it all. One axis described length of legs; the other, body weight. The best position was long legs, low body weight; the worst short legs, high body weight. There was a picture of a hare in one box, a tortoise in another, and an arrow to show how the tortoise needed to move, or re-engineer itself, as the consultants put it. The tortoise rolled on its shell in delight. These people did not, like some consultants, merely relay back what you had already told them: they provided explanation and analysis. “What relevance! What insight!”, the tortoise chortled.

The lights dimmed. The consultants showed a picture of a jaguar whose graceful legs and slim body took the tortoise’s breath away. So did their video that portrayed jaguars bounding across the plain, leaving hares trailing. What the tortoise needed to do, the consultants explained, was to turn itself into a jaguar. Short legs were only superficial manifestations of the tortoise’s problem. The real obstacle to success was lack of vision. So many creatures in today’s environment suffered from this deficiency; so many had been helped, by their consultants, to overcome it.

The rest is at his website. Next time you hire a consultant and get nothing in return, print this out and hand it to him or her as a going away present.