Business Facades and Potemkin Villages

Sun, May 6, 2018

… there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet

Eliot, 'The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock'

A while back I mentioned the very productive metaphor of the Cargo Cult and its applicability to much business nonsense. Here’s another marvellous one: the Potemkin Village.

Wikipedia illustration for 'Potemkin Village'

Wikipedia illustration for 'Potemkin Village'

The story goes that Catherine the Great, on a surprise excursion to the Crimea, was misled by the her minister and sometime lover, Grigory Potemkin, into believing the country was prospering. Potemkin sent his men ahead of the travelling court and created artificial mobile villages on the banks of the Dnieper River, populating them with hired peasantry. Once Catherine’s entourage had viewed the bucolic scene and departed, a village would be disassembled and the whole caboodle rebuilt downstream overnight, ready to delight the Empress once again with the spectacle of another apparently thriving and busy town.

There are variations on this (very possibly untrue) story. But for our purposes, to get the flavour of a Potemkin village in wood and metal before we dive off into the intangible world of imagination, we can think of a Hollywood stage set built for, say, a traditional Western, before the days of the now-ubiquitous CGI. The flat plywood facades of a temporary tumbleweed-infested town looking for all the world like a real bank, saloon, general store, and jail – when seen from a distance through the lens of a carefully positioned camera. Or think of a Cinemascope sword-and-sandals epic such as the Sunday afternoon staples, Spartacus and Ben Hur, where the might and glory of Rome at her height, almost two millenia ago, a city of perhaps a million people, is conjured up in wood, plaster, and painted glass. It may have taken a troop of skilled craftsman a few months to create the enormous sets that satisfied and thrilled all but the most sceptical or knowledgeable of cinemagoers - but that’s still considerably less effort than it took generations of slaves of the Roman state to erect the real marble and stone temples, palaces, statues, villas, baths, hippodromes and amphitheatres that formed the impressive vistas of Rome around the time of the first Emperor, Augustus.

So by extension, a Potemkin village is any construction built to deceive others into thinking things are better than they are.

There have been – and still are – physical Potemkin villages built to fool unsuspecting and gullible people. The Theresienstadt concentration camp, for example, was a show camp designed to demonstrate to the Red Cross during WWII that, despite reports to the contrary, all was well. There’s Kij┼Ćng-dong, a village in North Korea built in the 1950s to fool the South Koreans, though how effective that can ever have been must be doubtful give the decidely unignorable and very palpable presence of the corpulent Kims. And the notorious energy services company, Enron, created a whole fake trading floor in the late 90s to fool visiting analysts – successfully.

These physical constructions extend metaphorically into the virtual world. An entire country might manipulate its GDP data (here’s looking at you, China). Teams of spin doctors exist especially to control our perception of the news rather than alter the events themselves. In the world of business a company might carefully manipulate its social media posts, showing jolly pictures of its staff having enormous and improbable fun at a company event; it might lean on its staff, or command its HR team, to craft positive Glassdoor reviews. Perhaps its website is misleading, or its assurances to customers less than honest.

Smaller companies that perhaps don’t have the resources to easily implement best practices might be especially prey to this and create rhetorical Potemkin villages by way of a substitute for effective action.

The issue of mental health is a hot topic for companies and their HR departments throughout the UK. Now: larger companies can perhaps hope to tackle some of the issues genuinely and with competence because of their access to resources. But a smaller company is unlikely to engage well with the topic simply because it is probably not about to suddenly discover professional expertise amongst its small number of staff, or to be able to afford – or inclined – to buy-in the training needed to tackle the subject. Without the people, money, and time to devote to addressing serious issues seriously, a smaller company will be tempted to resort to Potemkin village tactics. It might send emails to staff asserting an interest in mental health, it might post photos on Instagram showing people caring and sharing, in their strictly-delineated lunchtimes. It might decorate walls with posters. But without the expertise available to larger corporates it’s not going to achieve anything really helpful and its Potemkin activities will more likely be positively unhelpful.

An example: a company I worked with a short while ago enlisted volunteers from its staff to champion mental health awareness. One of those champions – uninformed about psychology and apparently oblivious to a well-publicised scandal at the top of British journalism – shared with the group the recent, much-derided book on depressiondisclosure by the notorious plagiarist and disgraced former journalist Johann Hari, supposedly as a serious contribution to this small group of non-experts charged with special involvement in the company’s engagement with mental wellbeing.

Hari’s advice has been described by people who know what they’re talking about as dangerous. Here are some contributions from an expert:

Thread -> In publicity for his new book on depression, Johann Hari has repeatedly made the following claim: “between 65 and 80% of people on antidepressants are depressed again within a year”. He says it in this extract:

Now the plagiarist Johann Hari is arguing against biological explanations of mental illness, and claiming he knows how to “solve” depression. I find this extremely unlikely.

Wherever it’s easier to create a facade of effective action in place of real, knowledgeable, and useful effort you’ll see this sort of bungling repeated. And a company inclined to promote a bumptiously damaging approach to serious issues like mental wellbeing will probably operate in a way that is actually damaging to the mental health of its employees - by subjecting them to avoidable stress, arbitrary rules, inhospitable work environments, inadequate tools, unexplained sackings, whimsical or despotic decisions, and obvious favoritism. With luck, behind the facade of its Potemkin village, the real facts and figures will reveal all is not well - employee turnover rate, for example, available to see for anyone peeking behind the curtain.

Other examples of Potemkin villages include business plans in general (often produced reluctantly at the behest of banks and investors); from the early days of online retail , the disastrous boo.com; and, recently, Theranos, the health technology company that made false claims for revolutionary blood tests. Like the metaphor of the Cargo Cult, once you have this one under your belt you see it repeated everywhere. Everywhere where image precedes reality and where blagging it is a vital corporate strategy.

Footnotes

  1. Disclosure: I did some Psychology at University and have kept myself informed since but my real experience is second-hand via my partner, who has a First Class degree in the subject, an Oxford MSc, was for a few years a post-grad researcher at the Royal Holloway on a very famous long-term longitudenal study into social factors in the etiology of depression, and who now teaches Psychology.

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