The Corporate Jester

Jim Euchner, From the Editor, Research-Technology Management Vol. 63.1


The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

—Richard Feynman

In Shakespearean literature, the court jester is the only person who can speak truth to power. It is the jester in King Lear, for example, who provides critical insight to the king, and he is able to do so only because of his special license to speak freely, even about things the monarch does not want to hear.

Jesters were common in medieval courts in Europe and all across the globe. Wherever jesters were found, they had remarkably similar roles. As Beatrice Otto (2007) notes in Fools Are Everywhere, “It is in the nature of jesters to speak their minds when the mood takes them, regardless of the consequences. They are neither calculating nor circumspect, and this may account for the ‘foolishness’ often ascribed to them” (p. 245). Jesters disappeared, however, in the 16th or 17th century in China and by the 18th century in Europe, for reasons that are still obscure.

Court jesters were valuable. They shone light into corners that were typically very dark in an absolute monarchy. They were able to do so not only because of the permission conferred by the role, but because they made their comments with humor and at the right time and place. Laughter, it turns out, is the universal solvent. A well-placed jest enabled a leader to see the absurdity of a course of action and to change it without losing face. We do not know how many people (or monarchs) were saved by the presence of jesters.

Large organizations are, in some ways, like those medieval courts. People learn early in their careers that there are things that cannot be expressed, even if everyone knows they are true. Some of those unspoken truths relate to innovation. One topic that is often undiscussable is the commoditization of the core business, with all the implications that brings. Another is the potential for disruption from some new competitor or technology. Similarly, talking about your company’s aversion to risk or acknowledging the personal risk an innovator must be willing to accept to operate inside the company is often taboo.

This un-discussability serves a purpose. It enables leaders to avoid confronting problems they don’t want to confront, and to delay making tough trade-offs until they are absolutely unavoidable (which is often too late). One such decision is investing in breakthrough innovation. The innovation may be attractive, but the disruption it causes to the rest of the business and the need to divert resources from the core to the new venture is hard to navigate (and difficult to explain to Wall Street).

Chris Argyris (1990) described the mechanism by which companies avoid change as organizational defensive routines (ODRs). Such routines evolve inside companies as a means of protecting the core business (and its leaders); they function even when they no longer make sense. ODRs always have some contradiction at their core—that the company will both protect the core business and aggressively invest in new growth businesses, for example. Sustaining the contradiction requires both that it be denied and that its denial be made undiscussable. The routine is self-sealing; there is no way out.

Early in my managerial career, I came face-to-face with an ODR. I cannot remember the details, but I do remember the conversation. “It doesn’t make sense,” a colleague, Jack Flamholz, mused. “This innovation is exactly what they asked for. Why aren’t they investing?” We understood the difficulty the idea would create, but we also saw its potential.

Alas, we were stymied—there was no place to go—and we became a little wistful. Jack (who could have filled the role well himself) said, “If only we had a corporate jester.” We laughed a bit, but we realized how much sense it could make. Innovation stalemates happen all the time in corporations, with huge stakes; at their root is always some dilemma. Often, what is most needed is to confront the contradiction directly so that it has to be dealt with—to name the problem. An observation by a jester, one that was accurate, administered with humor, and provided at the critical point, might make continued denial unsustainable and open the path to resolving the conflict.

As luck would have it, I encountered a corporate jester late in my career. He entered the business as an executive coach, working with the CEO and other executives, but he focused a lot of his time on innovation. “Puck” (as I will call him) was smart, experienced, well read, and jovial. He loved to put unexpected things together, which often caused others to look at an old problem in new ways, and to laugh. He also lamented the difficulty of making meaningful innovation happen in many of today’s corporations.

Puck took pride in being provocative when it mattered (and sometimes when it didn’t), but he did so in such an interesting way and with such a cheerful demeanor that he almost realized the role of the jester in the 21st century. In the end, he met the same demise as many of the jesters of old: he was forced out by courtiers who were both calculating and circumspect. But he made a difference while he was there. The experience reinforced for me the potential value of such a role.

In innovation, we develop a lot of tools and processes that we hope will make a murky reality clearer and prevent myopia, which is the disease a jester treats. One of these approaches is discussed in this issue’s Conversations interview, “Seeing Around Corners.” In the interview, Rita McGrath describes, among other things, approaches for detecting and timing the impact of potentially disruptive technologies. In this age of continuous change, there may be no more important framework. At the same time, one wonders whether the approach will have the power to overcome the defensive routines operating in most companies. For that, a corporate jester may be required.

Wanted: Corporate Jester (Level H). Reports to CEO. Responsible for identifying patterns of destructive decision making at executive levels and for crafting pithy, wise, and funny parodies that create a fleeting self-awareness in executives. This is an “at will” position. Incumbent will almost certainly be fired at least once.

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