Consulting on The Emperor’s new clothes

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I've noticed I have a tendency to dismiss certain approaches, particularly newer ones that may not have a decent body of theory based on good science behind them, as "the Emperor's new clothes."

For those who don't know the story, here's Danny Kaye to explain:

(Yes, that's a cheap shot to include a childhood favourite…)

Working in organisations, it's often the case that we see a new programme or project brought in that, to our professional eye, is doomed to failure or is based on little more than snake-oil.  The temptation – reinforced by Hans Christian Anderson's tale – is to call our "organisational emperors" on it.

After all, the little boy in the story is the hero, isn't he?  Pointing out what everyone else can see but refuses to admit?  Seeing through the artifice to the nub of truth at the centre of it all?  And, of course, he's right.

The little boy was naive to social pressures and niceties. That's what enabled him to say it. But what happened to him next? I suspect when he got home, words were exchanged and, depending on the specific culture, a clip round the ear.


If we see such things, we still have a choice to make. Ethically, it's not "should we point out the Emperor's dress decision" – we must, particularly if the consequences are serious. (I'm thinking particularly about consequences in healthcare, government policy, aid and development examples, but anywhere it applies to wide populations of customers, citizens, etc is true too.)  The choice instead is "how should we tell them?"

As consultants, we have to be live to the consequences of such an announcement. The Emperor will not likely be thankful for the insight, the reaction to the news could be highly drastic.


One of the emphases that comes out of the complexity approaches is techniques that raise issues to the Emperor and his team that facilitates their own understanding.  Telling them the problem, while it has value in certain circumstances from particular experts, is not universally effective.  Instead, facilitating a team sense-making of their own situation allows them to own the problem, not feel threatened by being told something untenable and helps find a way through.

Many years ago, I recall working with a team of departmental leaders using metaphors from within the organisation.  One metaphor talked about a family of dogs with a "new Mummy".  At which point a loud voice from the director in question was heard: "Are you saying I'm a bitch?" Said initially as a joke, with various degrees of nervous laughter around the room.  Then a sudden realisation "Do you know, I am a bitch.  I have been."  And the room collectively let out a sigh of relief…


There are, of course, some more oblique, safe-to-fail ways of helping bring people to awareness.  Perhaps next time the Emperor goes out in his "new clothes", a strategically-place fan as he passes by might be enough to alert him to the possibility…