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The company was facing some unfamiliar challenges. For the first time in his career, the CEO brought in outsiders to investigate the issues. At the end of their engagement, the outsiders delivered a report that overturned several of the company’s dearly-held assumptions. Among them was how every company executive and employee who thought every customer knew every one of their products was wrong. As it turned out, one struggling product line was found to be completely unknown to nine out of ten potential customers. It’s a long, long way from assuming your company has top-of-mind awareness in one of your key product categories to the cold hard fact that millions of potential buyers have no idea your company even sells such products.

Sophie Friederike Auguste was the Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst

She was also known as the Grand Duchess of Russia. None of her three children were sired by her husband. She probably did not order the murder of several people. She imposed serfdom on Ukrainians. She carved up royal territories and gave them to her favorites. History recalls her as Catherine the Great. 

After Grigory Potemkin’s gallant performance in the Russo-Turkish War, Catherine took an interest in the dashing young officer

Catherine and Grigory became lovers and she subsequently made him Commander-in-Chief of the New Russia, also Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Prince of the Russian Empire, and Grand Admiral (coincidence, correlation, causation?). Their affair ended a few years later, but Russian’s first- and second-most powerful people remained allies.

Who was Grigory Potemkin?

Potemkin was a Russian nobleman, military leader, and statesman. He wanted to expand Russia’s territory to the south, so he set out to redraw the boundaries to include Ukraine (doesn’t this sound familiar). Because he had underestimated the massive undertaking, he needed lots of money. As the story goes, he concocted a scheme whereby he would hoodwink the empress. His logic was that if it could be made to appear that the region was well on its way to success, Catherine would fund his project. 

Potemkin had artificial villages quickly assembled

These fake villages were placed along the road where Catherine and her entourage would be passing. What appeared from the road to be houses and businesses were actually only false fronts with no building behind. These false fronts were light in weight and so would be easily disassembled after she passed and re-assembled farther along her route to be viewed again. The route was full of twists and turns, so the retinue would be taken back through the same town more than once, doubling the impression of prosperity. At each stop Catherine the Great was greeted by thousands of stage-managed subjects dressed up in fanciful garb to portray a prosperity that didn’t exist.

Economists use the term Potemkin village to describe an attempt to make things appear better than they really are

Across all industries, the term Potemkin village came to mean an elaborate deception designed to hide undesirable facts and conditions from higher-ups. You know, the way they do it at your business.

If you’re the decision-maker, be aware that wherever you go, your outings have been orchestrated by handlers whose mission is to hide the truth from you

You will only see what they show you and you will never have any idea what’s behind the scenes. As I have told every one of the hundreds of executives I’ve worked with over the years, you can never see what goes on when the boss is not there. What you can be sure of is when the cat’s away, some of the mice will play.

The New Zealand Slavonic Journal published a paper authored by Alisa Gayle Mayor

In it, she tells us that some of the stories about Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tauricheski are real and some are of doubtful ancestry, but all are embedded in Russian culture. Which of these groups do you find yourself lining up with?

  • The historians who claim Potemkin’s buildings were never meant to deceive, but were constructed to show where the villages would be and what they would look like.
  • Those who say the Potemkin village is only a legend that grew out of proportion with years of exaggeration in the retellings.
  • Others in the debate say because Grig and Cathy were lovers, together they were out to swindle the real targets — the foreign ambassadors touring with Catherine the Great’s imperial party. 
  • Still others smell a conspiracy that is part of a defamation campaign conducted by Potemkin’s enemies.

Double bonus

False fronts are there to convince TV and movie viewers that the fiction they’re watching is actually real. When we watch a Wild West hero shooting it out with a bad guy in the street, we don’t stop to think that all the buildings on both sides are false fronts. Most of those westerns we watched had fake buildings. The background below is also fake. Note the line just past Matt’s horse where the color of the dirt changes. Everything from there on is a painted backdrop.

Disneyfication is the term that broadly describes the process of stripping a real place or thing of its original character and representing it in a sanitized format where references to anything negative or inconvenient are removed, and the facts are simplified with the intent of rendering the subject more pleasant and easily grasped. Think of the private islands cruise lines use as playgrounds. They’re a far cry from nature and from the unpleasant parts of Caribbean societies – they’ve been DIsneyfied.


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