When ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’: Performance, Complicity and Constraints on Communication in Corporate Attempts at Innovation

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When ethnographic or market research is employed to help de-risk potential products and services, the focus is typically on understanding markets, cultures and contexts external to the organization that would launch them. This paper shifts the focus to the sorts of organizational practices, beliefs, and dynamics inside large corporations, which can create the conditions in which new products are brought to market despite evidence of their risk of failure.

Keywords: Innovation, New Product Development, Ethnography, Risk

[CEO at a town hall meeting, announcing an upcoming, public sneak preview of a major product launch] ….I realize the full platform won't be ready until January, but our Nucleus division assures me they are ready for this challenge.

[Engineering teams following the meeting:]

[Speaker 1] He does know that converting the whole platform to middle out has put us six weeks behind schedule, right?

[Speaker 2] Well I'm not gonna be the one who tells him we're that far behind.

—Scene from Silicon Valley 2015, Season 2, Episode 5

In extreme cases, nobody believes in the truth of a certain proposition but everybody believes that everybody else believes it. In more realistic cases, most people do not believe it but believe that most people do

—Elster, 2007

In the space of a few weeks, two apparently unrelated events took place. A colleague working at a Fortune 500 company was stopped in the corporate cafeteria and asked, “Did you hear about [Product X]? You told us it would never succeed. It took four years before they finally took it off the market and there wasn't even an announcement.” This conversation took place shortly before a friend at another large company recounted to me how he had presented research indicating an unpromising outlook on a product that had recently been brought to market. He had been commissioned with assessing how to market this product more effectively but research revealed challenges that he felt would be unlikely to be resolved. Following the presentation, he was taken aside and heatedly told (referring to the senior stakeholder involved): “He knows he has a turd. You can't tell him he's holding a turd; you have to tell him what to do with it.”

If you're an anthropologist or ethnographer working in a large organization there's little doubt that you've experienced something along the lines of these two episodes.1 Despite often occupying a role of ‘truth teller’ in their organizations, and with ample evidence at their disposal, anthropologists and ethnographers can sometimes do little to stop products and services at high risk of failure from being brought to market. The conditions that make this possible, even likely in some instances—is the subject of this paper. The specific reasons why a product might be at risk of failure are not at issue here, but rather the dynamics that can dispose actors in an organization to ignore, discount, or not consider the risks in the first place.

Few people in large business corporations tend to be given the explicit responsibility to “kill” products. Those few may be the ones who came up with the idea for a given product or have an attachment to it. Corporate practices of communication, including competition over, and monitoring of, who gets access to decision makers with the power to kill products, the optimistic tone often expected of communications up and down the chain of command, and the way research findings get abstracted and ‘rolled up’—combine to limit the probability that critical risk information is clearly conveyed to those with the power to kill (or delay a launch) and decrease the chances that they will recognize the degree of risk when presented.

Drawing on a series of formal and informal interviews with professionals in large business corporations and many years’ experience observing organizational dynamics as an insider anthropologist, this paper begins to examine not what gives ethnographic research its authority but what is at stake for many of its corporate audiences; what is implicitly acceptable to say and not say in different corporate contexts; the performance of roles and rituals of social interaction and the symbols and practices by which an organization maintains its legitimacy—not to mention the hierarchies, positions, and ways of thinking that come to be seen as their natural accompaniments. Each of these elements, always at threat of exposure as artifice—combine to create a climate of complicity, in which ‘everyone knows’ but does not explicitly acknowledge (e.g., the product is a dud; the launch will fail). In what follows, we take up each of these dynamics in turn.


In Goffman's classic work on social interaction, certain ways of speaking, dressing, and interacting are expected of people in any given situation; audiences support the roles enacted by ‘playing along’ and ‘saving face’; what is not acceptable to explicitly acknowledge is that these roles are performed in the first place (Goffman 1959). Much like a play, exposing the artifice during the play, the acting, undermines the belief in the realness of the play and its characters.

Seen from the vantage point of the organization, at stake in the exposure of the performance of the role is the legitimacy of the person occupying that role, the legitimacy of the role in general, and the ‘game’ in which it plays a part (Bourdieu 1994). Everyone who occupies what Bourdieu calls a ‘field’ has a stake in its perpetuation; so lawyers have a stake in the legitimacy of the law, legal institutions, and the legal professions, as well as their authority to make pronouncements on the subjects thought to be in their domain. At stake in lawyers performing their role in a manner that meets expectations is the legitimacy and authority of the entire field of law.

Seen from a different angle, the various actors in a given field need to be complicit in the basic fictions that make up the founding myths, the authority, and claims that field makes. This angle implies more conscious awareness of the various compromises involved: they ‘know’ the product is a dud; the game is rigged, the rich get rich.

…[E]veryone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways….The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit…above all, it's based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true. (Graeber 2015, 27)

The notion of complicity explains – at least partly – how teams and stakeholders might act as if a failure isn't looming.2 It is not necessarily that these people do not believe the researcher/truth teller or the real risk of failure the evidence implies. With the notion of complicity, people may conform outwardly but not inwardly (Elster 2007).3 They may not believe but they don't say so for fear of being seen as not adequately performing their station, or losing their station. As Tocqueville put it when describing why people with minority opinions often do not speak up once the majority appears already to have decided (for example to launch a product rather than investigate whether a launch is advisable): “When you approach your fellows, they will shun you as an impure being, and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they in turn be shunned” (1988, 256). In such a context, a stated belief—the product is worth moving forward—might take years to unravel, when it is finally, quietly taken off the market.


Most work on corporations in academic anthropology has documented and critiqued the environmental, social, and political effects of corporate actors rather than attempting to understand how these entities actually work from the inside (Urban and Koh 2013, Welker et al 2011). Popular depictions, American corporate law (Gordon and Orts 2014), and academic anthropologists alike have tended to speak of corporations as unified, rational actors. They might ask questions like: ‘how could they have fired that guy, let that happen, or launched that crappy commercial or product?’ Despite their internal complexity, Welker et al write, “these composite institutions give off the impression of unified thinking, talking, acting subjects” (2011, 54; Welker 2016). For the most part, Welker et al suggest, not only have academic anthropologists not brought to light such myths and misconceptions about corporations, by focusing on the harm such entities create or enable as apparently unified actors, they have tended to perpetuate and add color to them (ibid; Welker 2016).4

Meanwhile, business anthropologists and ethnographers, seemingly well-positioned to break up homogenous views of corporations, are more often paid to contribute to corporations’ ongoing operations than comment on them from an ethnographic standpoint. When anthropologists do engage in internal ethnographic work—workplace studies—the results are often written up for internal use and thus do little to contribute to a literature or research agenda on corporations themselves.5 Moreover, business anthropologists or ethnographers working for corporations are typically under non-disclosure agreements, limiting their ability to publish on the entities that have employed them. They may worry that publishing critical commentary on their employers or consulting clients—or commentary that might be construed as critical—could undermine their chances for future work as practicing business anthropologists.

When ethnographic research is employed to help de-risk potential products and services, the focus is typically on understanding markets, cultures and contexts external to the organization that would launch them. While this work can uncover important risks or obstacles a company might face in bringing a new offering to market, it does not attend to the constraints that organizational practices, beliefs, and dynamics can present to communicating and appreciating these obstacles once uncovered.6


Pluralistic ignorance and cultures of hypocrisy can be sustained by the same mechanism, namely, fear of disapproval or punishment for stating deviant views. – Elster, 2007

The particular sort of corporation referenced in this essay is assumed to be large, publicly-traded, multinational, hierarchical in structure, and headquartered in the United States. Common organizational characteristics relevant to our discussion include the following: insularity (an organization's tendency to look ‘inward’; a small number of day-to-day working relationships for most staff); job insecurity and internal competition over resources and capital (including symbolic capital like access to senior executives); a related climate of distrust; organizational hierarchies; and how corporate professionals are expected to communicate information up (and down) the chain of command. As we describe in the pages that follow, this mix of characteristics combine to make complicity with initiatives one believes might fail more likely; it also limits the probability that critical risk information is circulated with sufficient authority to kill an initiative. Norms about how information is communicated upwards to senior management can make it more difficult for these audiences to discern critical risks when they are, in fact, presented.


The cast of characters in even the largest business corporations often feels to its participants like a small community:

The main points of reference, for most employees…are their supervisors and fellow workers, the main concerns on a day-to-day basis the mundane tasks of meetings, presentations, memos and ‘deliverables.’ (Galambos and Sturchio 2014, 24)

Despite their often global reach, modern business corporations tend to be quite insular in focus:

Few who have not worked in or studied modern multinational corporations up close realize how insular they can be. Despite being global corporations that may operate in more than 100 countries with tens of thousands of employees who interact daily with millions of customers and countless politicians, regulators, policy influencers….there is a strong cultural bias to look inward rather than outward (ibid, 24, emphasis added).

In such a context, to challenge decisions made by senior executives, at least publicly, can risk disapproval from the small group of coworkers and connections with whom a corporate staff person regularly works, potentially torpedoing the evaluation of their performance and undermining their everyday relationships – key currencies at play in such environments.

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