I would ha' none but knaves use it, since a fool gives it.'
In a classic essay on the role of
the Fool in Shakespeare's "King Lear,"
L. C. Knights observed that the fool "speaks to (and out
of) a quite different order of apprehension: his function is to
disturb with glimpses of confounding truths that elude rational
formulation." Today, many of us find ourselves facing
"confounding truths that elude rational formulation",
and yet the rational approach to problem solving is still in its
ascendancy. We cling desperately to the notion that tomorrow
will be very much like today and that our hard earned experience
will be a source of strength, not weakness, in tomorrow's world.
Ironically, even if we accept only
part of B. F. Skinner's controversial theory of operant conditioning
, we must admit that behaviors that have been reinforced by
past successes could become liabilities in structurally different
business contexts. In their new book, DECISION MAKING AT THE
TOP, Gordon Donaldson and Jay Lorsch confirm this point by
Of course our leading futurists have
been warning us for some time--over two thousand years, in fact--that
change, not constancy, is the order of the day. Around 500 B.C.,
the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that "Nothing endures
but change." Like most philosophical rhetoric, that statement
was intellectually stimulating but it had little practical significance
until the last few decades.
The reason for this is that change,
itself, used to have an element of constancy within it. Change
was evolutionary, not revolutionary, and it typically followed
in an orderly, predictable pattern. A series of related events
could be identified as a trend by astute observers and that trend
could be expected to persist, with some minor fluctuations, for
some time. True, there were isolated examples of both disastrous
reversals (the outbreak of World War I, the infamous crash of
129) and inspiring breakthroughs (Marconi's radio, the Wrights'
airplane, Bell's telephone, Edison's light bulb), but by and large,
change was not a major source of anxiety because we had confidence
in our abilities to anticipate the future by intelligently extrapolating
from the past.
Then, in less than a generation,
the very nature of change changed. During the 1950s and 60s,
we watched with detached fascination as scientists wired roomfuls
of vacuum tubes into giant electronic brains and we began to hear
them excitedly discussing such arcane phenomena as the "information
explosion" and "time compression."
By 1974, Alvin Toffler had assessed
the psychological and sociological impact of many of these new
phenomena and he coined a phrase to describe a previously undiagnosed
disease that threatened to reach epidemic proportions: "future
Toffler attributed the principle
cause of this new malady to the accelerating pace of change and
he cited many convincing examples. But the speed at which change
occurs represents only half of the pathology. The other factor
which I predict will become the dominant one is the increasingly
discontinuous nature of change. With some effort we could cope
with very high speed change that flowed along a reasonably predictable
course. We'd have to work faster, probably harder, and definitely
smarter, but we could handle it.
The greater challenge by far, and
one that we all face more and more with each passing day, is to
cope with high speed change that is subject to frequent changes
in direction. More difficult still, we now come face-to-face
every day with change that follows no course at all--where the
links between cause and effect are completely hidden.
Gone are the days of extrapolative planning. Our past performance may be indicative of our future abilities but our future success will depend more on our ability to anticipate the future than to replicate the past. The smooth trends of yesterday have been buffeted and broken by revolutionary countertrends and these, disconcerting though they were, have in some cases degenerated into even more frightening staccato streams of seemingly uncorrelatable events.
In his more recent book, THE THIRD
WAVE , Toffler argues that there is, in fact, a grand design
into which even the most inexplicable events of the 20th century
may fit-"the death of industrialism and the rise of a new
civilization." But whether you accept that thesis or not,
Toffler's main point remains:
How then are we to identify and understand
these new realities for which we must reshape our very selves?
George Santaya's dictum-"Those who do not learn from the
past are condemned to repeat it"--doesn't carry the same
weight in our "Age of Discontinuity" as it did in previous
times. Indeed, I could even suggest a 20th century paraphrase
of that famous saying--Those who do not anticipate the future
may never experience it-- but that really doesn't solve our central
problem: How do we anticipate the future?
In many business circles today the
terms 'market intelligence" and "competitor analysis'
are taking on added significance. Surely one source of strength
in our struggle to anticipate the future lies in getting more
and better information on the central forces that influence our
marketplaces--suppliers, competitors, customers, technologies,
governments, and so on. If we can manage to stay on top of the
latest developments in each of these key areas, so the argument
goes, we can, at worst, respond quickly to significant changes
and, better yet, we may be able to capitalize on some important
new opportunities ahead of our competitors.
Ah, but there's a rub. Good decisions
are based on more than good information. That good information,
while certainly necessary, must fit into a mental framework which
will permit its true significance to be recognized and appreciated.
Paul Shay at SRI International  has described this receptive
mental framework as a "mental map" and his analysis
suggests that our future success depends largely on how well we
can construct and apply mental maps that correctly apprehend present
and future realities.
One particularly exciting example
of a new mental map that recently came to my attention concerns
the fundamental shift in what we call 'literacy' that will result
from the widespread use of the new Information Technology--personal
computers, on-line databases, integrated voice and video, and
the like. In a work now in progress from Harvard University's
Program on Information Resources Policy, Benjamin Compaine convincingly
argues that "that dynamic bundle of skills [that] we call
literacy" has traditionally "fostered a largely linear
approach to the manifestations of thought," but now a "new
literacy" is emerging. In an observation consistent with
the theme of this article, Compaine elaborates on an idea that
he attributes to the historian Eugene Ferguson:
If Ferguson and Compaine are right,
the New Literacy may foster forms of creativity that our western
literary tradition has either slighted or, more probably, suppressed.
Logical, linear, left-brain thinking is at home in environments
in which change has continuity. "Illogical," associative,
right-brain thinking becomes increasingly important in environments
where change is abrupt and discontinuous. Where do you live right
Who then can we turn to for advice--consultants?
Yes, there are a few, but as Edward A. Friedman of Chase Econometrics
Leading writers on the subject of creativity, such as Cambridge University professor Edward de Bono, have proposed techniques for enhancing your own ability to cast off the blinders of experience and stimulate your imagination. Techniques like "brainstorming" and "slip writing" have been around for some time and more are being proposed and tested every day.
As an interesting aside, consider the fact that the visual condition commonly referred to as "tunnel vision" is actually not a physiological impairment but a form of hysteria--an unwillingness at some level in the psyche to see the full scope of one's environment.
The future is not for the faint of
heart. Returning to Shakespeare for a moment, Lear's Fool darkly
warns, "Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools"
(Act III, Scene ii).
But who are we to listen to fools?
Ah, that's the point! To return to the statement by L. C. Knights
that I quoted in my opening paragraph, Lear's fool "speaks
to (and out of) a quite different order of apprehension..."
Compare that with the observation of renowned psychologist William
James that "genius...means little more than the faculty of
perceiving in an unhabitual way."
For years the Achilles' Heel of the
developed nations' industrial juggernaut went unrecognized. Karl
Weick of Cornell University expressed it very well when he observed
that even in a democratic society "no one is ever free to
do something he can't think of." During the industrial
age, the principal source of the industrial nations' strength
lay in their ability to take a good idea and to produce a
viable, new product. In the coming information age, much more
emphasis will be placed on coming up with the good ideas in the
first place. Here, on the "creativity front," the competition
will be fierce.
The need to think creatively and
act boldly is common to both basic and high technology industries.
Kenneth Iverson, the Chairman of NUCOR Corporation, a leading
mini-mill steel producer, says plainly, "good managers make
bad decisions," and GE's Chairman Jack Welch is fighting
against what he sees as the tendency in big corporations "not
to reward the good try." According to a recent FORBES
article, Welch intends to prove that he means what he says and
to that end he "has been loudly rewarding some near-misses."
A slightly more conservative expression
of the same desire to encourage the risk taking that creativity
requires is illustrated in the motto that Peters & Waterman
reported seeing in the offices of one of their 'excellent"
Do you ever tolerate mistakes? Do
you encourage people to be creative and daring enough to make
mistakes? Do you seriously consider controversial, "off-the-wall"
opinions? Do you even hear them or have you surrounded yourself
with sycophants who first discreetly probe for your opinions and
then vociferously support them?
According to SRI's Shay the best
way to get the jump on the future is not to dwell on those events,
however acclaimed, that simply confirm established trends. Instead,
diligently seek out those "small blips on the radar"
that herald a trend reversal or discontinuity. Paradoxically,
you must use your "mental maps" to be able to identify
and analyze these harbingers of important change and, at the same
time, you must use these same seminal events to refine, revise,
and ultimately discard those same mental maps that enabled you
to apprehend their significance.
But the question remains: Who can
help? Basically you must look for a trainer who can help you
improve your own "creativity quotient' and you should seek
to "seed" your coterie with a sage fool whose prismatic
intellect will obliquely reflect and refract the "confounding
truths" around him. Both alternatives should be aggressively
pursued; the more "creativity leverage" you can apply
to your business, the better. And while filling both positions
may prove to be difficult, I'd like to offer some advice on the
latter since good fools are hard to find.
What follows is a position description
for "Lear's Fool." While I've tried to be complete,
I will admit that I left the precise Hay Point rating assessment
to those more skilled in the intricacies of personnel resource
administration and I've simply approximated it at CEO-1.
How important is this to your organization?
In the words of Anwar Sadat:
thought will never change reality."
To disturb with glimpses of confounding
truths that elude rational formulation. To herald the advent
of cosmic shifts and to apprehend their significance. To challenge
by jest and conundrum all that is sacred and all that the savants
have proven to be true and immutable.
NATURE AND SCOPE:
The incumbent must not be a recognized
expert in any field (they're dangerous). Demonstrable competency
in many fields is required and the individuals "track record"
should be good but must be not perfect. The incumbent may not
have worked previously as a "serious consultant" unless
The incumbent must have a "prismatic"
intellect. To modify a metaphor suggested by literary critic
F. L. Flahiff, the incumbent's intellect should be such that "depending
upon the particular cut of the glass and the angle of the light
playing upon it, [it] may produce [wholly] different effects...-
a prism's radiance."
Since for most of us the ability
to think creatively about the future is inversely proportional
to the weight of today's responsibilities, the incumbent should
feel obligated only to:
The incumbent must avoid verbs like study, analyze, plan, develop, refine and assure in favor of verbs like observe, identify, associate, explore, synthesize and stimulate. He should neither lead nor follow, but should stand outside the normal chain of command.
He must exploit his intellectual
"carte blanche" to ask outrageous questions and to challenge
basic assumptions. He must seek accuracy, not precision; originality,
not consistency; insight, not completeness; and a focus on the
future, not a preoccupation with the present.
Candidate for this position must
The candidate must not have:
Intellectual independence is essential
for as Pablo Picasso observed: "Every act of creation is
first of all an act of destruction, because the new idea will
destroy what a lot of people believe is essential to the survival
of their intellectual world."
(Note: Misshapen head, if larger
on right side, is OK.)