Stories from the Road
Once there was a proud king who spent much money on fine clothes so that all could see that he was indeed a man of great importance. He spared no expense to keep his reputation as someone who always wore the finest clothes and stood out at every occasion.
One day two swindlers came to the city. They said they were fine weavers and master tailors and knew how to make clothes that were beyond the imagination of ordinary men. They said the clothes they made were so soft and fine that they might have been made of spider web, that the colors they used were so extraordinary that they may have come from the feathers of a peacock and they had the amazing property that anyone who was stupid or incompetent could not see them.
The king who was always looking for something new to impress the citizens of the city was captivated and enthusiastic to have a suit of clothes made for the upcoming parade. Also he thought I will be able to tell which of my ministers and advisors are incompetent and I will be able to tell the clever people from the stupid ones.
So the king paid the tailors a large deposit and they set up their weaving looms and pretended to set to work, often working late into the night.
After a few days the king sent his most trusted Minister to see how work was progressing as the procession was less than a week away.
The minister went to the rooms where the swindlers were pretending to weave the thread for the clothes but he couldn’t see a thing. “Well” said one of the swindlers, “isn’t this the finest cloth you have ever seen?” But the old minister could still see nothing. “Goodness” he thought, “I can’t see a thing, am I stupid and unfit for my position?” So he said “This fabric is the most beautiful I have ever seen! Magnificent colors and the patterns are superb, the king will be thrilled!” The swindlers then went into detail naming the patterns and describing how the colors all fit together to create an extraordinarily effect, so that they could be sure the Minister would report all this to the King.
When the minister returned to the king he said, “Your majesty the colors are amazing, the patterns sensational and the quality of the thread beyond belief.” So the king was well satisfied and waited in expectation.
The king sent other ministers to follow the progress and each returned to the king with reports filled with words like ‘Amazing!, Excellent! Magnificent!’
The night before the procession, the weavers stayed up all night pretending to sew the garments and everyone could see they were working feverishly to finish them on time.
The day of the procession, he weavers carefully brought the imaginary clothes to the kings dressing rooms and asked him to undress. Then they carefully set about dressing the king, firstly helping him put on the imaginary trousers then shirt and waste coat and cape, saying as they did that the exquisite lightness and quality of the fabric and the care of the tailoring meant that it may feel to the king that he was wearing nothing.
Then the swindlers stood back and admired the king, “Oh your majesty, you look wonderful, the colors are amazing, the patterns, works of art, the clothes fit you perfectly, what a luxurious outfit!” And they turned to the king’s servants who clapped and nodded enthusiastically in appreciation.
The king looked at himself in the mirror and had to pretend that he could see what apparently everyone else could see and he smiled and nodded with great appreciation. The king’s servant picked up the imaginary train of his cloak and held it up with great ceremony so as no one would suspect that they couldn’t see anything either.
And so the king went out onto the great steps and under the canopy that had been erected, he was surrounded by thousands of his subjects who were also waiting expectedly to see the marvelous new clothes for all had heard of the miraculous suit being made for the occasion.
While all the attention was on the king, the swindlers took the gold they had been given in many payments and all the fine silks that had been provided to them for the work with and that they had hidden away and quickly left the town without anyone noticing.
Everyone was commenting on how magnificent the king’s clothes were. For like everyone else no one wanted to appear incompetent or stupid. Then a small child came looked up, saw the king and called out, “the king is naked, he has no clothes!” And suddenly everyone knew it to be true. But the king was a proud man and he continued to march through the streets as naked as the day he was born.
This tale was made popular by Hans Christian Andersen (1837). Andersen's source was a Spanish story recorded by Don Juan Manuel (1282-1348). The tale also has its equivalents in Sri Lanka, Turkey, India and England
This story illustrates many things, particularly how a chosen belief system, as flawed as it may be, can survive when everyone agrees to maintain an illusion for in many cases the status quo makes more sense to the people involved than their alternatives as they see them.
Often in International Development a project does not go as well as hoped and intended. Development is a messy business and there are so many factors that can lead to outcomes that are lower than expected or circumstances which add unforeseen complexity. I have been involved in many projects where we have all realized that we need to change our activities or approaches. The place I always start, whether it is with a group in a community or a group of staff, is to ask what is working, what is not working and what would we like to do differently? Surprisingly, even though all is not going as hoped and everyone involved can talk about the problems encountered, as often as not, people say that nothing should change and we should just give things more time and redouble our existing efforts. In a sense this is, like the king, deciding to march on naked.
It seem obvious that, for us to try to make changes, we have to admit there is something that needs changing and here the road can begin to get sticky. To admit that something needs to change means that we must in some sense admit to the at least partial failures in what we have been doing.
The king in the story had been “working with expectation” on his new outfit for some time and when faced with the choice of changing his strategy and admitting that his assumptions and faith had been in fact been stupid, and with this worst fear realized, he elected instead to continue with “the project” and march through the streets naked, even though it was obvious to all that the new clothes project was a failure. It is interesting to surmise whether on meeting the naked king in the street, any of the subjects would tell him outright the new outfit was not working. Or whether in spite of the previous disclosure of a serious problem with the plan, everyone would inadvertently conspire to maintain the illusion. And thus nothing would change.
In this story, everyone has something to lose by admitting that they made a mistake, so in a certain way it makes sense to continue with the illusion. Development psychologist and author Robert Kegan[i] calls this ‘immunity to change’. Kegan describes how often it can seem to make more sense to do what we are doing even when we are failing relative to our aspirations rather than make a personal change to better meet our stated goals or mission.
So for example, the king is proud and doesn’t want to admit that he is wrong so he decides to stick with the program and march naked, as this in some ways better meets his need to be perceived as right rather than to admit he was wrong, change his plan and adopt a new set of clothes.
Kegan describes how our hidden commitments or assumptions are very often the things that drive our behaviors and the actions we take are those that are consistent with these hidden assumptions. In many situations the actions required to meet our lofty and genuinely held and stated beliefs would require actions that were in fact inconsistent with our hidden assumptions.
Several years ago in Africa I observed that a displaced persons camp had sprung up in the area the NGO was working in. It transpired that even though there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children living in this new village of makeshift tents, in the dry scrubby hills, the NGO was not actively involved in doing anything to improve their lives or assist the children attend school or their parents access basic services. It was not through a shortage of funds; apparently nothing was being done because it was not part of the NGO’s plan for the area. The manager held an MBA and was bright and efficient and the staff teams committed to the organization and morale was high. Every morning at devotions they all read out loud the stated values of the organization together which were pasted on the wall: “we are child focused, we are committed to the poor, we are responsive, we value people and their right to freedom, justice, peace and opportunity”. At the time I asked myself, how can it be that these staff are so sincerely committed to these values and yet are not trying to respond to this obvious need on their doorstep? I think the answer lies somewhere in this concept of ‘immunity to change’. How the ‘self-identity body’ can seek self-preservation – like an immunity reaction – and only take action when it is consistent to the hidden commitments and assumptions or operating system of the person. So in this case I surmise that those, who could have taken responsive action,
were working within a world view something like the following: “we will be more successful if we stick to the plan; change often involves risk and this may work against me; my manager and those above will not appreciate the additional workload and changes that being more responsive to this situation will entail; I need to show I am focused on the existing plans”. And behind this world-view is likely to be a hidden assumption something like: “I will succeed if I don’t take risks and don’t leave myself open to blame”. With this hidden assumption largely fixed and unrecognized, personal change and action, regardless of any espoused principles, is unlikely to take place.
This concept can apply to the group of staff who will take 30 minutes and convincingly describe what is not working in a project, and when asked: “So what should we do? What would you like to do? “ The answer as often as not is, “let’s work for another three years doing the same things we are doing now, all we need is more time”. If the hidden assumption is, “my whole identity, standing and perhaps future livelihood and success is given to me by this community that I am working in”, then to take some steps that risk strong resistance by some vested interests in the community may mean that as much as the staff member is committed to the project’s success, his or her hidden assumption is a stronger driver than any genuinely held but inwardly inconsistent beliefs. When I say inwardly inconsistent , I mean not seeking to change a project, even though it is failing, may very well be much more aligned to the staff’s hidden assumption, than to change the project and risk having some in the community withdraw their personal support.
I have often found myself telling this story of the proud king to groups of staff. My intention is that until we can say that the king is naked, or the project is broken and to see that we too have a role in this story, it is almost impossible to gain enthusiasm to make changes that may lead to better outcomes. The king’s foolishness was not his alone. There were many in the story of the king who could have spoken up early and the king would have jailed the swindlers and started again. The illusion of success was supported by the hidden assumptions of the Ministers who feared they actually were incompetent and whose hidden assumptions may have been, “I will succeed if I tell the king what he wants to hear and appear clever at all times.” If this was the hidden assumption or commitment, then telling the king the clothes were superb, against all evidence, made a kind of sense. Mostly, people understand our need to disclose program challenges but when it comes to getting to our own role in that, the path suddenly becomes steeper and rock strewn. One staff member in Eastern Europe said they were offended by the mental image of the naked king, another group in Timor was in tight agreement that the king should never have been a king in the first place and if he was so stupid why did the subjects follow him? And in neither case did we make much of an inroad to what we might choose to do differently and what this might mean for changes in behavior of the individual staff members involved.
I am convinced that to make real changes when a program is struggling, the place to start, is to find ways in which the key players can find a way to feel safe to explore and disclose their hidden operating assumptions. It is my view, that these hidden assumptions are both a product of personal worldviews and paradoxically foundational for them and, unless these change, the likelihood of significant program changes is small. From time to time I have seen this happen in individuals and as a result there have been astounding changes in the ways they do things and the results that take place. More often I have seen the negative consequences when, in spite of overwhelming evidence of the need for change, things continue the same and as king, we continue our naked march.
[i] Kegan, R. &. (2009). Immunity to Change. USA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Graphic in the public domain by Ilene Richard