The Emperor’s New Clothes

I was reading old fables to my kid a bit ago and read him The Emperors New Clothes. Two things struck me at the end. First, how little I remembered about the story, and second how strong of analogy it is for what I encounter as I consult in companies, and what I do to help everyone see the truth.

The Shortest Version

The story involves two con men coming to the empire’s capital and convincing the vain emperor they can make the world’s finest clothes. They further say that only the wisest people can see and appreciate it.

The emperor is delighted and sends them all the supplies they need. He also sends advisors to go check-in. The con men agreeably give fabric samples for the advisors to look at. Rather than admit they are unwise and cannot see it, they maintain the lie and describe its brilliance.

This dance with advisors continues until the con men say they are ready. The emperor is so excited he has a parade and marches down the street in his new clothes. The capital all buys into the lie and cheers and claps.

Except for a child, who points and laughs at the naked emperor in a quiet moment. The rest of the parade joins in once the lie is broken.

Looking Unwise

Time and time again, things repeat in companies that are the equivalent of people trying to avoid looking unwise and propping up something that they know is a foolish errand.

Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Project roadmaps that always fit every deadline/scope
  • Supporting a foolish project when you know its foolish
  • Urgency around getting something done because, “It’ll be bad if we don’t.”
  • Giving status reports to peers in leadership meetings

There is another one that I don’t want to put on that list, but it involves a leader creating a fake deadline to create urgency.

In the above examples, there is almost always a side to the story that people fail to tell where things will sound bad. That side is often omitted in favor of the side that looks good. Much like the advisors talking about the fabric samples they never saw.

The leader that creates a fake deadline is particularly troubling as they often bring in support of something foolish and admonish those who say things cannot work. It becomes a perfect storm of maintaining the lie throughout the organization. The problem is that reality doesn’t care about this lie, and the work takes the time it takes, but everyone wishes it didn’t.

I’m The Kid

A lot of what I wind up doing in companies is watching these moments, gathering some simple data, and presenting it throughout the organization.

This is the equivalent of the kid laughing at the naked emperor. However, I’m not doing it to laugh at anyone, it’s just the analogous part of the story.

What happens is that when I show up with data that represents reality, all the lies that were maintained suddenly fall apart. Yes, there are times when someone feels foolish, but I manage that by recruiting them ahead of time.

My favorite example of this is a million-dollar project that was going to take a year. I joined about six months in, saw things were not what they seemed, and then showed a forecast that we’d finish in 10 years.

It was a challenging moment, but we got through it and managed the scope back down to something we could do in the remaining months and got that done. Before everyone bought into the story that we can keep adding scope, and the timeline won’t change.

What to Do

If you suspect you’re trapped in this story, the course of action is somewhat straightforward.

  • Build an Alliance Upward
  • Collect the data
  • Create options based on the data
  • Show it

You need people in your corner to help with this. Often you collecting data will make a superior look foolish. Build alliances with your peers who want change and your superiors. They often are tired of the merry-go-round as well.

Then collect the data you need to show reality. Your alliance can help gather it and likely has different techniques you can leverage to deliver it. You want to show reality from multiple angles. If you have one angle, it looks like you’re nit-picking.

Now use this data to create at least three options as to how to move forward. They need to be real options. A real option is one that is possible and has a reasonable chance of succeeding on defined terms. That doesn’t mean people will like the option.

Lastly, bring your alliance with you as you present your findings. Sometimes the superiors will want to do it, but it needs to be you. First, it’s a show of responsibility. Second, you can allow your managers to save face if you do it. In other words, if it goes terribly, they can blame you. Last, you’ve shown you had the courage the whole time, so stay with it. Someone else may fall back to favoring the old lie instead.

Expect a tough set of questions. Expect your data to be called into question. Expect silence. Expect someone to ask, “So what do we do about it?” That’s what you’re waiting for. That’s when you can hand the emperor some pants.