Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Consult a Fool

Rulers--be they kings, emperors, pharoahs--had court jesters who were consulted occasionally to force the thinking in a different direction. Roger Von Oech, in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can be More Creative, suggests this method. If anything it will help your staff avoid groupthink.

Groupthink is when everyone agrees quickly to a single idea, usually because the person in charge suggested it. The Challenger disaster is thought to have been avoidable if the convening panel before launch had avoided groupthink. Alfred Sloan, legendary head of GM, is said to have tabled a resolution when everyone voted in agreement. He perhaps knew the issue hadn't been explored thoroughly.

Allen Funt's Candid Camera show illustrated this problem when people entered an elevator car to find everyone facing the back wall. Almost all of them faced in the same direction as the previous occupants, without any reason to do so. Similarly, without being instructed to do so, people undressed in a physician's waiting room because they saw everyone else had.

The nail that sticks up will be hammered down. -- Japanese proverb

A fool will not only challenge traditions, they may also challenge assumptions. By nature of his role, he was allowed to say the foolish thing, which may allow the ruler to see a different perspective without taking it as a serious suggestion. Von Oech gives these examples:

  • Reversing the standard assumption: when we see a man facing backwards on a horse, why do we assume the horse is going in the correct direction?
  • Being irreverent to point out averse behaviors: what will the rich put in their pockets that the poor throw away? Snot.
  • Reframing a problem into a positive event: recessions make people work more efficiently in order to keep their jobs.
  • Embracing the absurd: in spite of a missing donkey, a fool thanks God that he wasn't on the donkey at the time and therefore also be missing.
  • Noticing the overlooked: putting creamer in the cup before the coffee is more efficient
  • Being metaphorical: a fool may observe that it's just as likely that seeds eat birds as birds eat seeds, when the bird has died and seeds are nourished by the decomposing body.
  • Applying rules for one arena to a different one: huddling football players might be seen as praying, the crowd cheering as praising their god, concession vendors wandering through the bleachers as collecting offerings, etc.
  • Being cryptic: see something with your ears. Anyone who has been disappointed in a film version of a book might understand the potential of this. Also, anyone who understands the extraordinary developments in other senses when one is lost might appreciate this insight too.
Reversing perspectives is helpful. In the 1950's, people in Seattle thought they might be under Soviet acid rain attack because everyone started noticing that their windshields were pockmarked. It's actually a natural phenomenon but one undetected until someone started getting others to notice it too. In the 1330's, a siege was defeated when a cow carcass stuffed with grain was hurled into the besieging army's camp; the army believed that the city could be so wasteful because the siege wasn't working, when in fact the city residents were starving.

In your organization, find someone to be the fool and ask the tough questions or take the humorous positions, let them point out:
  • how your competition might kill your company if they knew where you were weakest
  • what the best ways are to drive your customers away
  • frivolous uses of cash or debt that might actually identify where you are wasting resources
  • challenge where business aphorisms might be wrong: e.g. weakest links are considered fuses in other systems and are there to protect more important system elements; two birds in the bush keep the dream alive rather than settling for the known or the available (bird in hand); being polite to customers increases the time for each transaction and puts the public relations department out of work; skipping the chain of command and surprising the boss means you get visibility and good ideas can't get garbled (i.e. as evidenced in the 'telephone game')

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