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The “Emperor’s New Clothes” Trick and How to Deal with It

As a child, I read the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen. The story is one of the earliest known accounts of a trick that technology salespeople use all of the time. Let me first recap the story, and then I’ll explain the trick and how to deal with it.

The Plot of the Children’s Story
According to the plot, a pretentious emperor always wants to be seen as superior to everyone else. Some con men convince him that they can make him a new set of clothes that are better than anything he has ever worn. The clothes are incredibly thin and luxurious, and so light that they feel like air. But the clothes have one interesting property: People who are unworthy can’t see them at all.

So the con men get out their weaving equipment and go through the motions of making cloth. The emperor watches the early stages of manufacture, and notices that he can’t see the cloth. But he keeps his mouth shut because speaking out would reveal the emperor as unworthy. The con men continue with their charade, pretending to sew the invisible cloth together until they have an invisible set of clothes.

The con men bring their fake clothes to the emperor in his bedroom. The emperor strips down, and the con men pantomime putting the clothes over the emperor’s head and fastening them in place. “Are they not as light as air like we promised?” they ask. The emperor, too proud to admit that he can’t see anything, agrees that they are definitely very light.

The emperor gets in his open carriage for a trip through the city. The story of the emperor’s clothes has preceded the procession, so everyone watching the king figures they’re just unworthy because they can’t see anything. And no one watching wants to acknowledge this because then everyone would know that they’re unworthy. But then a small child watching the procession cries out, “The emperor has no clothes!” Suddenly everyone, including the emperor, realizes that they’ve been conned.

The Modern Trick
The modern equivalent of this trick is to sell a technology that doesn’t make sense by convincing you that the technology is so advanced that you can’t understand it. The sales people start with a simple yet far-reaching premise, something like “we’ve invented a revolutionary new database technology that will completely eliminate fraud by providing full traceability of all transactions back to their original source.” The target audience for the sales presentation is a group of senior executives in a company that has recently been victim to fraud or, even better, a group of senior executives who work for a competitor to the victim. The executives in the actual victim company will be more suspicious, but their competitors will be naive and yet eager to prevent a similar problem in their own company.

The salespeople schedule a meeting with the executives in the company. IT people are included, but they’re outnumbered by operational executives with no technical background. The CIO will probably bring along one or two database experts, just to make sure there is technology expertise.

The presentation begins. The first part of the presentation attempts to scare the hell out of the audience, reeling off horror story after horror story about fraud and the cost to its victims. Statistics are cited to make it seem likely that there’s no way to escape this problem — it will hit you sooner or later no matter what you do.

Next come some complicated diagrams and charts which “explain” the new innovation. To a non-technology person they look impressive. They’re full of technical terms that are vaguely reminiscent of other technical words that have been thrown around a little bit by your IT department — things like relational database, multi-phase commit, fault-tolerance, multi-threading, and maybe even that most sacred of all current technology terms, “the cloud.”

The appeal of the presentation is emotional — not logical. The salespeople want you to see their software as the only true solution to a problem that’s infecting the entire world. Given the heavy executive weighting of the audience, it’s unlikely that the company’s technology experts will get much opportunity to ask questions. But if they do, the salespeople are well prepared with answers that sound good to the executives but don’t actually address any of the real technical issues. The unspoken message to the technical people is, “this is technology so advanced that we don’t expect a mere mortal like you to understand it. But believe me, it works.”

By the end of the presentation, the executives are ready to sign up. The discussion is not about yes or no but instead about how fast the technology can be implemented. The CIO and the technical people know that there is too much momentum to stop this thing so they instead try to rein in the discussion, offering alternatives like a “proof of concept” or a “limited trial.”

And this is where the most important issue comes to the forefront: How much is the CIO trusted by the executives? If the trust is there, then the momentum of the sales pitch will be broken, and a more rational approach will prevail. Maybe the CIO will assign someone to investigate this technology further, the IT organization will gather information from reputable technology assessment firms like Gartner, and a team will talk with current customers of the technology to get a feel for the real cost/benefit.

But if the trust between the business and IT isn’t there, then there’s a 90% chance that some form of contract will be signed before the end of the week. Some number of months later, the poor CIO will be put in the unenviable position of having to explain to the business executives why this miracle technology couldn’t deliver the promised results for their business. And there’s a very good chance that the CIO won’t survive in the job another two years. After all, if a miracle is promised and it’s not delivered, then whose fault is it? It must be the CIO who didn’t implement it correctly, since it obviously couldn’t be the technology.

Lessons from the Parable

  • If a concept can’t be explained simply, don’t buy it. Good products are sometimes complex, but there’s no magic to them. Every good yet complex product has a simple explanation for its effectiveness that’s understandable to any knowledgeable buyer. Put your vendors on the spot: Ask them for that simple explanation. And if they can’t provide an acceptable answer, then throw the vendor out.
  • There are a lot of reasons why it’s important to have trust between your business executives and your IT executives. One of the most important reasons is so the non-technical executives have someone they can trust with technical decisions. If that trust isn’t there, then you’re going to have technical decisions made by non-technical people — not a good thing.
  • Don’t let the business buy a product whose advantage is high technology if your own technology people don’t agree with the premise.
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

And although my example is an “advanced” database technology, I’ve seen this trick used equally effectively by people selling CRM systems, ERP systems, cloud solutions, and even accounting software. In each case the salespeople promise a magic solution but fail to disclose all of the behind-the-scenes hard work and changes in business processes that are required to successfully implement their product. Even the best products have no magic — the computer systems are just doing something that you could do manually, but the systems are doing it more reliably and millions of times faster. Ultimately it’s not the product that produces the good result — it’s the changes you make in your business to support the product. Don’t let your business people forget that.

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