Sidebar: Fooling with Fear
Paul Birch isn't fooling when he describes the origins of his role as a corporate jester. During a perfectly respectable 17-year career with British Airways (BA), he worked on everything from mergers to marketing. He also worked on quitting the company. "Every time I was ready to leave," he recalls, "my boss would say, 'I've got an interesting job for you.' Finally I announced, 'It's time for me to go.' He said, 'What would it take to keep you?' " Inspired by an article on the character of the Fool in King Lear, Birch wrote a job description for someone who would question authority, promote honesty, and approach problems in creative ways. Then-CEO Colin Marshall "thought it was a great idea," Birch says - and thus began his stint as BA's first corporate jester.
That was the spring of 1994. What followed was an experiment with mixed - but never dull - results. Birch, now 42, gave pointers to top BA executives on how to be less confrontational. He made a bunch of suggestions about the architecture of the company's headquarters. To promote creativity, he encouraged managers to chase one another with water guns. And most important, he said the things that most other people inside BA were afraid to say.
"One of the roles of the jester is to declare, 'Just because you're the boss doesn't mean that you know better,' " Birch says. "The jester's role is to draw attention to things that are going wrong, to stir things up."
Of course, you don't need to have, as Birch did, a business card bearing the title "Corporate Jester" to act as an agent of truth. But making the role official confers a certain license to speak up - not unlike the license enjoyed by court jesters at least as far back as the 13th century. Which may be why the ideas behind Birch's title seem to be catching on. He has co-authored a book (with Brian Clegg), called "DisOrganization: The Handbook of Creative Organizational Change" (Financial Times, 1998), about ideas for shaking up large companies. Likewise, British innovation consultant David Firth recently cowrote a book (with Alan Leigh) titled "The Corporate Fool" (Capstone, 1998). It describes the role of the corporate fool as "doing the undoable, thinking the unthinkable, saying the unsayable, and driving your sensible organization mad with creative folly."
That's a good description of what Birch did inside BA. For example, one problem he tackled involved creating sensible policies for seat allocation. Under BA's old system, customers expected to get seat assignments when they made their reservations. But since airlines overbook flights, customers who made late reservations did not get assigned seats - even if they were paying full fare. They waited at the same gate as passengers with confirmed seats - some of whom had paid substantially less for their tickets.
"You had riots on your hands," Birch says. "If you're putting off customers to the extent that they attack your staff, something is wrong."
Birch's role was not to solve the problem but to help a team of BA employees to alleviate the pressures that the problem was causing among team members. Birch used various games "to change the state of the group." His favorite game was "Giants, Witches, and Dwarves," which divides participants into three groups. "If you're a giant, you have to wave your arms in the air and shout at the top of your voice," he explains. "If you're a witch, you have to cast spells. If you're a dwarf, you have to get down on your knees and beat the knees out from other people. So there's a whole group of people doing these daft things - but they're doing those things as a team."
(The team redesigned the system so that only tickets bought at a certain price are guaranteed prebooking. Most customers receive seat assignments at the airport.)
Over time, Birch's commitment to truth telling inside BA gave him the courage to be honest about his own role. "At first," he says, "I was only partially effective. Then people began to say, 'You have a right to get involved.' But after a while, people started saying, 'You would say that, wouldn't you? That's your role.' It was possible to ignore what I was saying because I was the jester."
So in 1996, Birch resigned from BA to work with other organizations. His new clients have included Lucent Technologies and the BBC. His goals remain the same: to help cut through fear and complacency, and to unleash honesty and creativity. "When things go wrong," Birch says, "employees usually have a good idea of how to fix them. You need to create a state in which they've got the commitment and the courage to do something. You want to build organizations where everyone sees provocation as one of their essential roles."
You can contact Paul Birch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and David Firth (email@example.com) by email.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.