Wanted: Corporate Fool

Jester wanted. Must be mirthful and prepared to work summer weekends. Must have own outfit (with bells). Bladder on stick provided if required. ~ The Times, August, 5th, 2004

I’m lucky to be on a large crazy project. Large enough to have its own ways but with a leadership willing to step back and ask the question – “Who do we want to be in the future?”. Who are we now? A collaboration of contracting companies working on a large legacy government portal, heavily interconnected with other departments and agencies in such a convoluted way I lovingly refer to it as Conway’s Nightmare. The program director had gathered what amounted to the royal court of the project – the leadership team. I was invited to join. A facilitator led us through a pretty neat icebreaker that reminded us to be empathetic to our different management styles. Part of the introduction involved a description of our roles. I dutifully announced my current label from the 2-D Org Chart but on a whim decided to describe how I saw the part I played. I said I was the Project Jester and somehow it felt right.

My current wanderings through the literature of play and related anthropology has led me to the works of Victor and Edith Turner on rites of passage and the phenomenon of communitas. The models of transition and change appeal to me as they tie notions of play to tribal transitional rituals. I see my project as a collection of tribes, interconnected and diverse but practicing only the ceremonies of Agile. The Turners’ descriptions of ritual is a layer beyond ceremony. The participants are deeply connected on the path through a transitional or liminal stage on their way to a changed state or status, be it a ritual of adulthood or a seasonal celebration. Key to the transition to the liminal state, betwixt-and-between different planes of reality, are the initiates and the those who shepherd them through to a state of shared being or communitas. Edith Turner quoted anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff’s list that included those shepherding roles:

“All manner of possibilities occur: tricksters, clowns, poets, shamans, court Jester, monks, dharma bums, holy mendicants, even social movements such as millenarian cults, or social principles such as matrilaterality in patrilineal systems, qualify for examination liminal phenomena.”

Jesters then have already been recognized for their role in creating a liminal state in courtly politics. The Medieval Jester or fool came in two forms. The Natural Fool was often “touched by God” and amused the court despite being simple or moronic. The Licensed Fool however, had no such mental affiliations and was given the right to question and to dig at the politics of the day. Provided they didn’t overstep the line, kings and queens found them both a source of amusement and council. Over step and they might lose that license along with their head.

“And, let me tell you, fools have another gift which is not to be despised. They’re the ones who speak frankly and tell the truth, and what is more praiseworthy than truth?” Erasmus (1469–1536): Praise of Folly

Mind you, I have not seen any equivalent to the modern Certified Fool, who claims the right to counsel others based on nothing more than training resulting in a piece of paper and an acronym after their name.

“…every despot must have one disloyal subject to keep him sane.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

You would think with Jesters being so universally recognized and embraced that they would have lasted down the ages. However no official state Jester had been employed in the United Kingdom, for example, since Archie Armstrong, Jester to Charles I. Cromwell abolished the role in 1649 after the execution of Charles I. Then 350 years later the ad above from the Times appeared. The English Heritage had advertised and although they didn’t represent the state, it did garner a lot of coverage. The appeal of the Jester was still alive. Maybe the idea of a Jester as change agent in the modern courtly corporate world was not out of the question.

Organizational change is hard at the best of times. From what I have seen of organizations or even my project trying to “Go Agile” suffer the same resistance as McMaster et al describe:

“We contend that failed change efforts reflect a failure to “unfreeze” (Dent 1999; Lewin 1947), i.e. to abandon the old institutional order. Organizations seek to preserve their current identities, unless there [is] a powerful reason to do otherwise… only when people reach a threshold of sufficient dissatisfaction with existing conditions will they initiate action to resolve their dissatisfaction” (Van de Ven 1995).”

They portray the rejection of a structured Information Systems methodology (here I equate to Agile Transformation) in terms of “the failure to “problematize” the situation In such a way as to portray the methodology as the accepted solution to the troubles and difficulties besetting the organization”.

Leaders need fools and vice versa~ Manfred Kets De Vries

McMaster et al discuss similarities and differences between what we call change agents and the notion of a corporate Jester. They saw the key being the humor injected by the sage-fool as a way to take the edge off the more formal agenda of a change agent. They saw humor as not only empowering but also as a tool of subversion, a reflection of the necessary betwixt-and-between liminal state as a form of the rite of passage of organizational change.

They reference other findings:

“Bovey and Hede (2001) examined the relationship between humor and organizational change In a survey of nine organizations undergoing major change efforts, they found humor to be associated with a “ready and willing orientation” to change. The maladaptive defenses, on the other hand, were associated with a resistant disposition.”

A little poking around and it seems this concept of a corporate Jester is anything but new. In the forward to Russell Ackoff’s Management f-Laws, Gerard Fairtlough, Formerly CEO, Shell Chemicals U.K and CEO, Celltech notes:

“As long ago as 1993, Russ came up with the idea of a corporate Jester. In his column in the journal Systems Practice, he wrote: ‘Medieval royal courts had court Jesters who unfortunately disappeared even when the courts remained. They should be reincarnated and placed in corporate courts… Corporate Jesters must be able to ask questions that others either have not thought of, or dared to ask. In addition, they must be able to provide answers that are not expected, even by the ‘kings’ before whom they perform.’ ”

Likely in response to this idea Paul Birch spent 18 months starting in 1994, as the Corporate Jester for British Airways.

Maybe then my pronouncement as the Project Jester is not so crazy a notion after all with one personal twist. Although I enjoy the power of humor in the workplace, I also see a shortcoming. Humor by its nature, ridicules. If you are on the side if the ridiculed then it leaves a judgmental taste in the mouth. Even self-deprecating humor can end up a judgment of oneself. If I bounce this idea up against less verbally violent ways of communicating I have come to appreciate, like Marshal Rosenbergs’s NVC techniques, humor alone just doesn’t feel like a right step on the path to sustainable change. As Kets De Vries notes:

“Freud also mentioned that “humor is not resigned; it is rebellious” (1927, p.103). In many instances, joking behavior is used as a way of getting back at figures of authority. The fool turns into an anarchist, using humor to make the breaking of rules and regulations less objectionable (Goffman, 1967).”

I’d like to think a better version of the Jester’s role leans less on divisive reflection and more on collaboration. While they necessarily create that liminal inversion of power triggered by the sort of questions that the licensed fool dares to ask, the progression should be to one of play not anarchy. Play lives outside the normal experience of the workplace. Those who chose change need that outsidedness so they can experiment in a suspended and separate “place”, unconstrained by the daily grind of policy and procedure. I suggest then that part of the role of the Jester is to help create an environment which is more than “safe-to-fail” or even “safe-to-learn”. Beyond the transition is a new state of being and flow for a group that the Turner’s call communitas. A “place” in which collaborators in change can find it “Safe-to-Play”.


Fooling Around: The Corporate Jester as an Effective Change Agent for Technological Innovation ~ Tom McMaster, David Wastell, Helle Zinner Henriksen Business Agility and Information Technology Diffusion IFIP International Federation for Information Processing Volume 180, 2005, pp 129-144

“The Organisational Fool: Balancing a Leader’s Hubris” ~ Manfred Kets De Vries

From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play” ~ Victor Turner

Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy” ~ Edith Turner


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
This entry was posted in Agile Anthropology, Communitas, Conflict, Play and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wanted: Corporate Fool

  1. Pingback: Pulling at the Roots of Culture | The Agile Buccaneer

  2. Pingback: The Point of Play | The Agile Buccaneer

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