A boardroom fable


The Tortoise, the Hare and the Management Consultant.

The Tortoise and the Hare

A fable for senior executives

Once upon a time, there was a tortoise which lived in some marshes on the edge of a large plain. The tortoise had a hard shell with an attractive lustre and had lived contentedly in the marshes for many years.

But the tortoise was happy no longer. The source of its distress was the athletics contests which were frequently organised by the animals of the plain. The tortoise did well in some events, like hide and seek and limbo dancing. But not in the races. In every event, from the hundred metres to the cross country, the tortoise was left far behind by most of the other competitors. Especially by the hares.

What was to be done? Like everyone who is not sure what to do next, the tortoise turned to a firm of management consultants. It sought the advice of Boston, McBainey and Butterson, one of the best-regarded firms in the business. Within a few days, the tortoise was surrounded by youngsters with MBAs from the finest business schools. They measured the dimensions of the tortoise and the way it moved. They held in-depth interviews with other tortoises, and with hares. Above all they listened intently to the tortoise’s own concerns.

Following this intensive appraisal, Boston, McBainey and Butterson went away to prepare their recommendations. Soon the consultants returned to present their findings. This time they brought a senior partner from the firm and a van full of audio-visual equipment.

They began the session with their diagnosis. The reason the tortoise kept losing races, they pointed out, was that tortoises could not run as fast as hares. They illustrated this with several PowerPoint slides, and, conclusively, with a video that showed hares regularly overtaking tortoises. The tortoise was extremely impressed. “I can see”, it thought to itself, “why these young people earn such high salaries. They have learnt to listen to the client and to focus exactly on the nature of its concerns.”

But there was better to come. The consultants went on to explain why the tortoise could not run as fast as the hare. It was because the tortoise had short legs and a heavy body. When you put diagrams of a tortoise and a hare side by side on the screen, there could be no doubt about it. The hare had much longer legs and a lean figure.

By this time, the tortoise was rolling on its shell in delight. These people did not, like some consultants, just relay back to you what you had already told them. The clincher was an elegant diagram that summarised it all. One axis described the length of legs; the other, body weight. The best position to be in was long legs, low body weight; the worst was 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. “What relevance! What insight!”, the tortoise chortled in delight.

Finally, the lights dimmed and the consultants moved to their recommendations. They showed the tortoise a picture of a jaguar. The elegance of the jaguar’s graceful legs and slim body took the tortoise’s breath away. So did their video which portrayed jaguars bounding across the plain, leaving hares trailing in the far distance. 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 for the tortoise was that it was constrained by the limits of its imagination. So many creatures in today’s environment, the consultants explained, suffered from this deficiency; so many had been helped, by Boston, McBainey and Butterson, to overcome it.

The consultants left their (rather large) invoice on the way out, but the tortoise’s first reaction was that this had been money well spent. Yet after a few days, some doubts began to penetrate even the thick shell of the tortoise. Finally, it plucked up courage to telephone Boston, McBainey and Butterson. “How exactly do I go about changing into a jaguar?”, the tortoise asked.

Embarrassed at asking such a naïve question, the tortoise was relieved when the consultants offered an immediate answer. But then it remembered that good consultants always had an immediate answer.

Many of our clients ask that, Boston, McBainey and Butterson explained; so many, in fact, that we have just set up a new change management division to help them. These consultants are trained to explain to every part of the body the importance of turning into a jaguar. Indeed, the new programme allows them to stay with a client for as long as necessary, until the change process is complete.

The tortoise was attracted by this proposition. But before returning the engagement letter to Boston, McBainey and Buttersons, it had a word with the wise old owl. And what the wise old owl told it was this. Tortoises and hares have evolved for very different environments. Hares do best in wide open spaces, where their speed gives them a competitive advantage. Tortoises survive for many years in hostile territory, where their shells protect them from predators and the weather. That is why even if the plains may sometimes look more attractive, they are attractive for hares, not for tortoises; and why equally it is not sensible for hares to come down into the marshes. A happy creature is one whose characteristics match the environment within which it operates, and that is what the gradual process of biological evolution helps to achieve.

The tortoise thought this advice was shrewd, and trundled back into the marshes. It proved to be a wise decision. A few weeks later, a pride of lions found its way onto the plains, and ate all the hares. The tortoise lived on in the marshes, slowly but happily, almost ever after.

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