“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a short tale by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, it takes the untainted mind of a child to point out the obvious fact that the emperor is naked.
What happens to the emperor might seem farfetched but unfortunately the kind of behavior the tale illustrates is quite common even in our time, not only among individuals but also as cultural phenomena in many organizations.
In an article in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers Mats Alvesson, professor at Lund University, claims that a consequence of this phenomena is that excess documentation and window dressing activities serving to create an impeccable appearance are prioritized at the expense of activities serving to satisfy customer needs or to improve the business. The tendency to do as everyone else and the fear to deviate is widespread in many organizations. The fear of being questioned in one’s choice of strategy thumps the ambition of creating real customer value. According to Alvesson the ambition to look good rather than do well results in cautiousness, inactivity and weak results.
I can’t but agree with Alvesson. In my work as continuous improvement coach I too have seen smart ways of working and good intentions turn into “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In the organizations where I have witnessed this undue emphasis on using the “right” tools in the “right” way has turned improvement work into a masquerade with the purpose of holding managers at a distance and making visitors impressed. In these organizations the improvement process itself can look worthy of imitation but business results never improve. The reason is that the improvement process has become a separate entity that is maintained for its own sake and not for the reasons it was originally created – i.e. to help the organization solve problems preventing progress towards business objectives, increase organizational learning and create growth.
To Alvesson’s reasoning I’d like to add that culture to a person is like water to a fish. Changes in culture are hard to see and if you do not know what subtle changes to look for you will have a hard time noticing if your culture evolves in the wrong direction. But what could be the reason for a negative cultural change? It’s definitely not spite. People want to do well, but sometimes internal and external forces influence human behavior in the wrong direction. Coaching a group of school leaders last week I was told a very illustrative example of this. The school leaders said that if a situation where a student had gotten into trouble caught the public attention the first question they got was always “Did you have a plan?” and not “What did you do to improve the situation for the student?”. If external or internal stakeholders focus on structure it becomes harder for you to stay focused on purpose.
So what should you do if you get the feeling that you are wearing “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and suspect that you have wound up in unproductive behavioral patterns? Talk about it! Only when problems are brought to the surface will they be possible to solve. Some will even, like vampires, lose their power as they are exposed to the light.
One of the participants in our program for ”Corporate Culture Coaches” told me he had introduced the concept of “Watermelon-KPI:s” (Key Performance Indicators) in his management team. A watermelon is green on the outside and piercing red on the inside, and sometimes their key performance indicators had been too. By becoming aware of the concept of Watermelon KPIs they had become better at confronting the brutal facts of reality and less prone to attempt to “look good” in front of each other.
You will find the whole article by Alvesson (in Swedish) here. If you want to learn more about developing high performance improvement cultures and avoid pitfalls such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” I recommend pre-ordering my new book ”How to Succeed With Continuous Improvement” that will be published by McGraw-Hill in November.