The emperors tailors in disguise!

Each day I see more and more examples of people reaching out for hope. Hope that the next thing they read will be the silver bullet that fixes everything. Hope that the next piece of paper they pick up will solve all of their problems.

I ask you this.

If I write the words “Winning Lottery Ticket” on a piece of paper does that make me suddenly a millionaire? Unlikely…..

Just because someone tells you they have a process or a system or framework does not necessarily mean it is helpful. Even if it is in a corporate slide deck style guide approved font. A project plan, a schedule, a control system of governance, or a benefits management framework are not made useful simply by a fancy heading.

In the old fable of “the emperors new clothes” the tailors were able to make a sale to the emperor simply by convincing others to believe they had created a brilliant outfit. The reluctance of anyone to call out that the clothes did not exist is what kept the ruse alive. That was until a small boy, in the absence of seeking to be seen as part of the knowing majority, simply asked why the emperor stood in his underwear.

It seems the easy option to go with the crowd. To agree that the process in front of you must be the best way forward. To accept that just because the process is available, that is the approach to take. I won’t go on about the cognitive bias that is availability bias; I’ll leave that to you to add to your next google search.

The challenge in seeking to improve things lies not in finding new options. There are many tailors around willing to sell you the next big thing. There are also, though, many conscientious and well meaning people who will present options that simply are not going to work. Some processes they present are also cursory appraisals of a process that will lead you to believe they will work. This leads executive groups especially down the road of false confidence. The assumption that things are now under control and desired results will just flow.

I am truly sympathetic to this second group. It is my belief that there is not only no intention to mislead, but an real belief that they are helping. These are not the tailors. These are people who simply don’t have sufficient experience to appreciate that shortcuts and simplifications can sometimes be more costly in time and effort than making sure that the method being applied can get you to the goal you intended.

As managers and executives you are left in the difficult position of not always being able to easily tell the difference between the tailors, the well meaning learners, and the experts. One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career was a simple phrase to help this selection process.

“That’s great. Can you show me?”

If you have a clear target then the process to get there should actually get you there. A project plan with no measurement of success (easy to point at measurable “I am finished and you can prove it”), a benefits framework with no actual numbers or process of measurable change, a financial forecast without clear “this is what I am spending on, and when”, are all examples where the “show me” conversation would separate the expert from the novice or tailor.

There aren’t as many tailors out there seeking to mislead as you may first think. There are, however, many well intentioned novices creating new clothes.

It is in your best interest to challenge; to ask for the small children without agenda to ask the simple questions. If your office has no small children on the payroll, then be one yourself. Ask them “Can you show me?” and save yourself the days of standing in front of the crowd in just your underwear.

Hopefully only metaphorically!

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Nathan Jones


  1. Mike on May 11, 2023 at 12:38 am

    Nice Work.

  2. Frances on May 11, 2023 at 1:57 am

    Unfortunately not everyone feels comfortable in challenging the status quo (and there are various factors involved in this), but if done as per your article and with the use of the simple phrase – “That’s great. Can you show me?”. It can save a lot of money and time down the track in not having to recalibrate.

    • Nathan Jones on May 11, 2023 at 3:09 am

      Thank you Frances. I appreciate the positive feedback.

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