The Fable of the Five Magistrates

I wrote the following story, borrowing heavily from another well known fable, in order to bring home the concept of “Customer Driven Quality”. Perhaps you will enjoy reading it. I let my kids read it, and they liked it, except they said the end was a little too obvious. Perhaps you will find the end obvious as well.

The Fable of the Five Magistrates

There exists a small island in the ocean, not very close to any other land, and not visited often by foreigners. This Island had five major villages, and each village was was lead by an elected magistrate. The magistrates were wise, and lead by consensus. Also, by an amazing coincidence, the kind of coincidence ones sees only in fables, all five magistrates were blind. Yet they had capable people on their staff who acted as their eyes and ears, and they had not problem with the daily running of the island.

The island was a prosperous one, and the custom was that every Tuesday afternoon, there would be a parade to celebrate the prosperity. This parade time was always cherished by the people; everyone could be expected to be there. So long had the custom of holding these parades, that those who attended and watched the parade were called customers. Over time a grandstand had been built to allow these customers to sit and watch the parade in relative comfort. If they weren’t involved in putting on the parade themselves, they would come every Tuesday afternoon to relax and watch the parade go by.

While it was extremely rare, one week a foreigner came to visit who brought with him an amazing and exotic animal: an elephant. Seeing that it was Tuesday, and seeing that the visitor needed to leave the following morning, the visitor suggested putting the elephant on a float in the parade. It was an instant hit. What an amazing spectacle this became! The customers were enthralled with such a sight they had never see before. The entire island was abuzz with impressions of the the elephant.

The five magistrates were aware of the interest in the new addition to the parade, and were sad to hear that the foreigner had to leave right away. Each magistrate thought: “If my village could present next week a float that is as exciting and noteworthy as this, everyone will notice, and I will surely get re-elected for the next term!” Such thoughts are common for elected officials everywhere. Each of the five magistrates set out immediately to make a float that could capture some of the interest that this elephant had, but without an elephant they would have to be creative.

The first magistrate went immediately down to see the elephant, but being blind had to walk up to the elephant to experience it. The side of the elephant felt like a great wall. So he said: “Aha, I know what these customers want, they want a great big wall.”. He brought in the best wall builders from all over the island and set about to make the straightest, most perfect walls that had even been on a float in a parade.

The second magistrate did the same, but encountered the legs of the elephant, which felt very much like the trunks of massive trees. He said: “Aha! I know what these customers want, they want to see huge trees in the parade.” He immediately send for all the best arborists on the island to custom build a float that would display trees.

The third magistrate encountered the tail of the elephant, which felt like a rope. He said: “Aha! I know what these customers want, they want to see ropes.” And he sent for all the best rope makers on the island to start immediately on a lavish display of ropes for the following Tuesday parade.

The fourth magistrate encountered the trunk of the elephant, and said “Aha! Elephants are like snakes! We might not have a real elephant, but I should easily be able to thrill the customers with a vast collection of snakes.” And he immediately sent for the most famous herpetologist on the island and set about to accomplish his goal.

The fifth magistrate did not go see the elephant at all. He instead went to talk to the people who were in the crowd during the parade and who saw the elephant. He found that while these people were clearly thrilled by the sight of the elephant, since they had never seen one before, they had no way to describe it to him. For example, they had no word in their language for “trunk” or for “tusk”. He invited them to come by the grandstand again on Friday afternoon, where he drove potential floats by them, and listened to their response. Knowing that the elephant had four legs, he started with a float with a desk on it. From their reaction, the crowd was not very impressed. A table was similarly disappointing. Then he tried a float with a pig on it. From the reaction, this was clearly more interesting to the customers. Then he tried a cow, which gave a greater response, and he came to the conclusion that “bigger is better”. So then he tried a moose, but found that the moose was less popular than the cow. He tried many different things, each time listening to his sample crowd carefully to see what they liked and did not like. Finally, he ended up with a float that elicited a large response, not quite like that from the elephant, but still very close.

The weekend passed, and Tuesday came, and the grandstand was filled with customers hoping to see something like, or possibly better than, an elephant. The float from the first village came by, and it included very impressive walls on it. They were straight! They were soundproof! They were covered with vivid, yet tasteful, wallpaper. Everything a wall should be, but the crowd was not impressed at all. The crowd responded similarly to the next three floats. The second float had an small forest of trees of all types from around the island, the third had ropes woven from a dozen different fibers, with colorful strands threaded through, the fourth had a hypnotizingly lavish display of snakes. While these floats were perfectly executed, none of them yielded the a response like that of the elephant. Finally the fifth float appeared. Riding high and in plain view was a beautiful black race horse. The crowd went wild. They had seen horses before, but never displayed like this in a parade, and this was a magnificent horse.

The elation of the crowd was not lost on the other four magistrates. They complained bitterly. “This horse is NOTHING like an elephant. The elephant was like a wall, and this horse is nothing like a wall.” Another said: “Elephant legs are like trees, but this horse has skinny legs, nothing at all like trees!” The experts even went so far as to analyze and cross check all of the ways that this horse was not at all like an elephant.

But, the magistrates were wise, and quickly realized that the fifth magistrate was on to something that worked. They asked him what his secret was. The fifth magistrate answered: “It is easy. I did not go to look at the elephant. I did not analyze the qualities of an elephant in an attempt to isolate the distinct and unique features of an elephant, and then try to duplicate those same features. Instead, I realized that the important qualities are in the audience, not in the elephant at all. I knew that my impression of the elephant might be different from those of the people in the grandstand. Instead of focusing on the elephant, I focused on the audience excitement. I showed the audience a lot of things, the first of which were not at all pleasing. But every time I showed something, I measured the response. I kept trying different things in control groups until I got the best response possible. It is true, the horse is clearly NOT an elephant. But the main goal should not be to produce an elephant, but rather to produce a pleased crowd. So listen to the crowd, not the experts who know the elephant.”

So the magistrates, who were wise, learned from this, and continued to put on better parades. They also continued to be re-elected. The island continued to prosper. They even changed the motto of their little island government be:

“The important qualities are in the Audience, not in the Elephant at all

Jefferson Quote

A notable quote I ran across today:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body.

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 1813