A weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.
Tuesday, 13 April 2004
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your weekly newsletter on Creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.
As always, if you have news about creativity, please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103.
I had a crazy idea the other day: court jesters for large corporations. Court jesters, of course, were the sidekicks of kings. In Europe, they were originally simple fools who danced, sang, told jokes and stumbled about for a laugh. Later court jesters where often very clever people who could criticise their kings through humour – something no one else in court would dare do. The classic example of a clever jester is undoubtedly the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear.
As is the case with so many European 'inventions', the Chinese got there first. Chinese kings were known to have jesters more than 2000 years ago (the first known European court jester was at work in the eleventh century AD). Moreover, the Chinese court jesters had the specific job description of being wise and advising the king via way of jest and riddles.
It strikes me that large companies would do well to have a wise corporate jester attending the president of the organisation. The corporate president, like kings of old, has become extremely powerful. As a result, people beneath him (far too many corporate presidents are he's rather than she's) are reluctant to criticise him for fear of reprisals.
Certainly the rash of accounting scandals, fraud, massive payouts unlinked to performance and dismissals of presidents in recent years suggest that corporate presidents have become overly powerful and overly complacent. Hence the need for jesters to make them question their actions. Imagine a fool in Enron (the Energy company that fell apart because of accounting fraud) telling the president jokes about the dangers of pretend money.
Divorced from the reality of day to day operations and given the freedom to look at their companies, ask questions that no one dares ask and to make fun of high level people, corporate jesters would certainly inspire lateral thinking, with the result of new ideas about products, structure and more.
Using jokes and riddles, corporate jesters would question the ways companies operate, joke about every aspect of operations and make the president and others in the corporation think deeply about how they work.
PS: As so often happens, I am not the first person to have this idea. Researching after writing this story (always dangerous), I discovered that Paul Birch was apparently a corporate jester for British Airlines in the mid-90's. Read more about how he handled the job at http://www.fastcompany.com/online/19/nofool.html.
IDEAS AND PUNISHMENT
At the end of the last millennium (gosh, doesn't that sound a long time ago!), I spent some time consulting a big bureaucracy. I won't name the bureaucracy (although anyone reasonably adept with Google could figure it out in minutes) because so many bureaucracies work similarly when it comes to ideas and I want to criticise their innovation practice rather than the bureaucracy.
The problem with this bureaucracy is that if an employee performed reasonably well or better, she could be guaranteed a slow but steady promotion; probably attaining a head of unit or possibly a director's post before retiring. Even if she performs outstandingly, bringing innovative new ideas to the bureaucracy that vastly improve efficiency, she cannot expect anything more than incremental promotional and salary rises.
On the other hand, if she makes a mistake or embarrasses the bureaucracy, she can expect to be held in her current position for a long time, forgoing promotion and pay rises. In some cases, she might be moved to an inactive post with a prospect of many boring years of nothingness.
The result of such an environment, of course, is that it makes everyone risk adverse: there is no benefit to bringing successful new ideas to the organisation, but punishment (career stagnation) for bringing bad ideas to the organisation.
People in such bureaucracies soon learn to keep innovative ideas to themselves and to do as they are told. They accept that “because this is the way we have always done it” is, in fact, the best way to do things irrespective of how inefficient it may be. They learn that the only time to be clever is while having a drink with colleagues after work – with the clear understanding that those ideas will never, ever make it back to the bureaucracy.
The tragedy, of course, is that bureaucracies are paid for by the taxpayers they are meant to serve. However, if they designed to filter out new ideas about better serving those tax payers – there are no winners. Tax payers pay ever more for services that could be offered more efficiently, civil servants do not get a chance to exercise their creative minds and no one is particularly happy.
Clearly, what the bureaucracy I advised - and others – needs is a means to reward people for brilliance and a system that does not punish people for having an idea that fails.
Of course it is not just bureaucracies that operate so. Too many companies are similarly bureaucratic in their operations.
CREATIVITY AND MENTAL ILLNESS
A topic that has always interested me is the link between creativity and mental illness. An interesting article citing a clear biological link between the two can be found at http://www.sophists.org/article252.html
PROBLEM SOLVER AT THE AIRPORT
Finally, an amusing story about a chap who set himself up as a problem solver at an airport http://query.nytimes.com/search/article-page.html?res=9F04E1D71F30F933A05750C0A9629C8B63 (free registration probably necessary)