What designers can learn from jesters about power

https://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/court-jesters-the-stephen-colbert-of-18th-century-germany-370312/

In 1994, Colm Marshall, then CEO of British Airways, appointed Paul Birch to be Corporate Jester in order to ‘stir things up’. By all accounts Mr Birch was asked to play a mercurial role: promote creativity, show managers that just because they were boss did not mean they were right, and to say the things that most people are generally afraid to say, at least publicly on record, within their own organisations.

Move on to 2021 and the world is doing a fine job of stirring things up all by itself. In response, the role of Corporate Jester has been taken from the fringe and been mainstreamed into “transformation”, a relatively new seat of power, yet found most everywhere these days.

Transformation is more than a bunch of people, process or tech changes bound by a method. At its core, transformation is a kind of ‘un-learning’ and critical self-reflection — to recognise not only that old models no longer work, but critically that the new transformed models that one needs can’t be gained through a linear progression from the existing models models you have. In other words, transformation can’t be achieved by aiming for a new destination, but travelling there in the same way. The journey is going to have to be qualitatively different.

This is something that Colm Marshall understood. He needed someone to drive transformational thinking in each and every moment. Someone able to observe the status quo for what it was, bold enough to challenge its fundamentals, intuitive enough to imagine what’s around the next corner, and bold enough to lead people there.

Jesters and court fools have always wielded an interesting form of power to the kings that employed them. Where the courtier provided structured and expert counsel, the jester provided unstructured and inexpert / experimental counsel. Nevertheless, both exerted power and influence.

I’d argue that the closest thing today to the king’s jester of old, or the corporate jesters of BA, are designers. Not exclusively, but designers do pride themselves on their professional ability to observe, disrupt, re-imagine and create new futures. So I think it’s a fair suggestion. They are the change agents in vogue today.

So what can designers learn from jesters in exerting transformational power?

I’m not the first to think about this. None other than Systems Thinking pioneer Russell Ackoff wrote about it in 1993, helpfully breaking down the qualities of a good jester:

McMaster2005_Chapter_FoolingAroundTheCorporateJeste.pdf

This sounds like the day job of most designers. Ackoff further demonstrates how the jester works as a change agent, by connecting his thinking with Change Agent Theory.

McMaster2005_Chapter_FoolingAroundTheCorporateJeste.pdf

An article by Minder and Lassen in the Journal of Design, Economics and Innovation (I know, I go there so you don’t have to) follows a similar line of thinking. They begin with a nice reminder of what Creative Design Practice actually involves.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405872618300029

Similar to Ackoff, they break out the different jester characteristics designers can adopt to increase their power.

Why designers need jester power

1. Designers are being used for their power, but not getting a fair share of power

I shared this in a tweet earlier this week.

It’s a pretty depressing story. The word that jumps out is ‘meaningful’. So designers may be in senior roles, but they aren’t being heard or listened to. Alas, my motto is to “take no as a question”. So if someone isn’t listening to you, it’s not their fault, it’s yours. You need to change your approach. I think the jester approach is a useful one.

2. Design is being co-opted into the mainstream and, as a result, losing its intrinsic power

I wrote my BA thesis on how black American electronic music from Detroit and Chicago was co-opted by a mainstream white European music industry, and fed back as a more palatable white product. Just as it was with the Beatles and R&B. The same is at risk of happening with design. That design’s DNA of disruption becomes watered down as it gets re-packaged in more palatable ways for a broader community of established buyers. Often this isn’t down to individual people, its just how culture works. I think the jester approach is one way to restore that intrinsic power.

3. The experimental approach of the jester, balanced with the expert approach of the couriter, is the source of continuous transformation organisations need

In a world that changes by the day, the half life of facts is shortening, yet expertise is responding by becoming more brittle, rather than more fluid. Experts need to learn to experiment with their expertise. Designers are archetypal make-test-learn experimenters.

However, at present, the coming together of jester and courtier is leaving designers worst off, with high churn rates and disillusionment in the industry. But we must hang in there, as our positive relationship with established leaders is key to successful transformation. They may not enjoy the changes at first, just as the kings of old often didn’t enjoy the barbs and jibes of their jesters, but they need to be helped to realise that design holds part of the answer. Taking on some jester powers is therefore a way for us to become individually more resilient.

How to increase your design jester power

  1. Avoid the tendency to ape the appearance of power— established power exerts change through seriousness, dry facts, pomp and pride. Instead, try inducing change using creativity and humour. Humour creates distance from an existing situation and helps people cope with new or difficult information, thanks to the cohesion it creates within a group. A design workshop without laughter is usually a very bad sign.
  2. Continuously reframe existing problem spaces — challenge expertise for what it so often is: past knowledge presented with certainty. Facts have a half life, which can be highly destructive in business, and which therefore people need to be regularly reminded of. Jesters are master storytellers, able to engage people (head and heart) in alternative views. It’s no coincidence that storytelling has become a design practice in its own right.
  3. Open up horizons for new ideas — jesters poke people’s vulnerabilities, and there is nothing more vulnerable than innovation. We all learnt very early on, as children, that it’s personally very risky to ask radical questions or to propose leftfield ideas. It’s also very scary for a senior leader to spend money on things that might have to get thrown away. The jester needs to be comfortable drawing people to the edge of their vulnerability and coaching them through the ‘project weather’ they experience there — sun and fun, but also days of rain and wind. Jesters use art forms like acting-out and role play to create safe environments for people to become vulnerable.
  4. Create entente through your likeability and the good company you provide — this is the really unfair one, as it’s so culturally specific and challenging for anyone who is an outsider, which many jesters by nature are. But anyone will tell you that the change agent is always at risk of stepping too far, and of the punishment they get. Fools and jesters were often beaten and killed for overstepping the mark, so had to continually strike a verbal balancing act. They used comedy to cloak their disruptive ideas in good feelings. It works. So we need to keep design fun and enjoyable and not give in to the urge to make design a serious process.

The arrival of a good clown exercises a more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than of twenty asses laden with drugs.

Thomas Syndenham, 17th Century Philosopher and Physician

Thanks to these articles and sources:

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