A Modern Day Business Fable

Once upon a time, there was a small but beautiful castle, tucked under a mountain outside the city.   The castle had been in the William’s’ family for generations and had a long history of splendor and opulence.  Old Mr. Williams loved the castle and tended it carefully until he got too old to work.  When old Mr. Williams passed away, the family donated the old castle to the state historic Society, as the family and the castle could trace their roots back to a famous person in history.  The Director of the Society was excited to renovate the castle and hired a contractor to restore it to its early grandeur.  They had a limited budget for the renovation and realized that the renovation would have to take place over a long period of time, but The Society was very interested in opening at least part of the building to visitors as soon as possible.  They conveyed this to the contractor.

The contractor who successfully bid the project was called Bert, and he hired two subcontractors to supplement his own skills.   The first subcontractor, Harry, was quiet and gruff, but a very competent builder.  Harry had performed renovations on old buildings for many years and was considered an expert on foundations and stability of old buildings.  The second subcontractor, Franz, was effusive and charismatic – a decorator known throughout the community for his wonderfully creative works.   Bert had worked with Franz many times before and really enjoyed those times because Franz involved him in the decorating – Bert’s long-time avocation. 

First, let’s plan

The first order of business was to evaluate the castle.  Harry checked and re-checked the foundation, the masonry, the interior walls, the ceilings, and roof, and came to the first meeting with a detailed description of what needed to be done, how long it would take and how much it would cost.

Meanwhile, Franz flitted through the castle with Bert, oohing and awing and generating all sorts of excitement about what the restored building could be.  He didn’t have time to write down his ideas, and certainly, he couldn’t put a price to his work yet – it was far too early.  Because of Bert’s long history of working with Franz, he understood that the creative spirit couldn’t be dampened by details, and he told Bert that he just needed to keep him updated regularly so that they didn’t go over budget.

Bert told Harry and Franz that they should begin work the next day, and told Harry that the budget which the Society had provided was very limited and that Harry would have to complete his work twenty percent under his original estimate.

Harry was not happy about the budget cut, but he wasn’t the type to argue unless he had his facts straight.  So he went back to his shop to ponder the dilemma.  He changed the plan to use a lesser grade of materials, and he cut his own labor costs to a minimum.  He decided that he would still be able to finish the work without compromising the safety and foundation of the building.   Just to make sure that Bert knew how much effort he had put into the revision, and to make sure that Bert knew that he was sacrificing his own profit, he put the changes in writing and mailed a copy to Bert.    He didn’t get a response from Bert, but he’d worked with Bert before and knew that Bert didn’t usually respond to mail.  He was a little frustrated that he was having to revise his plan instead of beginning the renovation, but he’d been in business a long time, and he knew this was just part of the job.

While Harry was busy revising his work plan, Franz was busy, busy, busy.  He researched the furnishings and tapestries of the period, he talked to the Williams family and others about what they remembered about the castle, and he contacted antique dealers all over the world.  He jetted to Europe to find a replica of the brocade settee that he found mentioned in old Williams’ family journals.  He hired painters to paint the large foyer – he desperately wanted to begin work on this most impressive part of the castle.  In the center of the foyer was a grand, curved staircase, with ornate wood carvings all along the banister.  Franz could just picture the photo in Architectural Digest, with the caption reading….” , by Franz”.

A progress report

At their next meeting, Bert asked Harry and Franz to report on how the renovation plans were progressing.  Harry began by reminding Bert about the letter he had sent, with the revised materials list and cost.  He began to itemize the specific compromises that he had made to the others;  he felt that it was important that everyone understood that they were using lesser grade wo and that the cracks in the foundation had to be fixed before any work could be started on the carpentry in the foyer.   Bert interrupted Harry to ask if all of this information was in the letter he had sent.  Harry replied that it was, and Bert suggested that he would go back and read it to save them all time.

Bert then asked for Franz’ report.  Franz had only returned from Europe a week before and was still soaring.  He had found some of the most remarkable antiques, and had traced a perfect period lamp to a small antique shop in London, and had purchased it for “a steal”!  Franz was so excited to talk about all the wonderful ideas he had, that he completely forgot to talk about his work plan.  Bert suggested that they save that for the next meeting as they were running out of time.

The last item on the agenda was the budget.  Franz reported his expenses so far, and both Bert and Harry gasped.  Franz had already spent 20% of the total budget!  Bert quickly assessed the problem and told Harry that he had to cut his building budget another 10%, or the whole renovation would go over budget.  Harry started to argue, as he knew that he had already cut the budget to the least he could spend, and still maintain the building at code.  After a few sentences, Harry decided he wasn’t effectively communicating his side of the story, and he decided to go back to his workshop and do some figuring.  He didn’t feel very comfortable speaking his mind, especially when Bert and Franz seemed to work so effectively together – he sometimes felt like an outsider.

A real dilemma

Harry went back to his workshop and thought hard about how he could finish the renovation within the budget that Bert had given him.    He talked with the lumber yard about discounts on the materials, and he thought about how he could do more of the work himself, in order to come in at the budget that Bert had given him.  He took a moment to think about the fact that he regretted becoming involved in the project in the first place, because he knew that Bert was far more committed to the decorating part of the job than to the building part of the job.  The decorating was exciting and interesting;  the building was just “bricks and mortar”.



Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.


  1. Problem was the level of transparency and ownership of what was going on. When working on huge projects everyone needs to feel they have ownership over the whole project, not just areas of it. This is why there are interviews, group discussions, simulations, sticky notes on posters, planning documents, and drawing on white boards. All these techniques build both emotional investment and ownership into the success of the project.

    I argue there were not one but three projects going on. Society image, decorating, and foundation. If it was one project all three of the guys would have had a serious sit down and talk numbers. I’m confident that the Society would have allocated a bigger budget when knowing the risks at hand. I’m also confident that the decorating would have been better wrangled to a significantly less number.

    But for this to happen we need to know exactly what to do. The sad part is to know we got to be burned at least once.

    • Being burned is called learning. Being burned twice is called clueless. This story was not real, but an attempt to write out my frustrations about a peer and his constant search for the bells and whistles (technology), without any focus at all on the integrity of the data. All of the tools you mention are good, but I find that smaller businesses don’t either understand or see the need for such tools, so they go with their gut and often get burned. I posted this, hoping it might turn on a lightbulb for even one person. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Carol: I believer the first lesson is that the Society should have been keeping a closer eye on what was happening and fired the G.C. long before the floor collapsed. Inspect what you expect is a valid rule of management.

    However, it has been my experience that little can be expected from government agencies.

    • Ah, Ken….the scenario was just what came to my mind years ago when I needed to get my frustration off my chest, and used writing to do so. The actual issue was with technology in an HR department. Getting excited about the bells and whistles happens all the time, everywhere. Thanks for your comment.