D. Verne Morland
NCR Corporation, WHQ-4
1700 S. Patterson Blvd.
Dayton, OH 45479

First U. S. Serial Rights ©1984

Published in: New Management,
Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1984

Ledelse I Dag (Denmark),
Nr. 15/4. Argang. Nr. 3, Dec. 1994.

( Document, 238 KB)




D. Verne Morland

Wood cut image of the fool talking with King Lear

'When a wise man gives thee better counsel, give me mine again.
I would ha' none but knaves use it, since a fool gives it.'
William Shakespeare
KING LEAR, Act II, Scene iv

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."[1] 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 [2], 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 noting:

"In those instances where [corporate executives] have failed to adapt their company's strategy to a changing competitive environment, the explanation lies not in a short-term focus but rather in their inability to read environmental trends accurately or in their adherence to traditional beliefs about consumer preferences and competitive practices. ...Events that transform the conditions under which a particular industry or firm operates are therefore difficult to accommodate."[3]

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 shock."[4]

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 [5], 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:

"We are left with only one option. We must be willing to reshape ourselves and our institutions to deal with the new realities." (emphasis added)

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 [6] 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:

"The ability to think holistically and intuitively rather than sequentially and logically may be...more appropriate to the tasks facing us in the coming decades."[7]

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 now?

Who then can we turn to for advice--consultants? Yes, there are a few, but as Edward A. Friedman of Chase Econometrics candidly observes:

" ... There's a tendency in the consulting business to avoid forecasting discontinuity because predictions that cannot be supported by past trends are very risky. Business people tend not to want to hear about possibilities you cannot document." [8]

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.[9] 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."[10]

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."[11] 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,"[12] and GE's Chairman Jack Welch is fighting against what he sees as the tendency in big corporations "not to reward the good try."[13] 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" companies:

"We forgive thoughtful mistakes."[14]

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.[15] 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:

"He who cannot change the very fabric of his
thought will never change reality."[16]



INCUMBENT : (Open) REPORTS TO: Chief Executive Officer

ORGANIZATION : Executive Office LOCATION: Merlin's Parapet
Heath & Moor Road



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.


Budget: None (save for spangles and bells)

Number of employees supervised: None (God forbid!)

Revenue impacted: All (and then some)


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 he recants.

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."[17]


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:

  • Stir up controversy,
  • Respect no authority,
  • Resist pressures to engage in detailed analyses.

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 have:

  • Broad temporal horizons - both past and future - and a dominant future "zone orientation." (For definitions of these terms and for an excellent analysis of the role of temporal perspective and managerial attention in chief executive strategic behavior see El Sawy.[18])

  • A "Renaissance Man" mentality involving some experience in many areas and the conviction that the Dark Ages must be left behind.

  • An ability to work comfortably with nebulous issues in strictly qualitative terms for as Harvard's John Steinbruner has noted: "If quantitative precision is demanded, it is gained in the current state of things, only by so reducing the scope of what is analyzed that most of the important problems remain external to the analysis."[19] This thought is echoed by Garber and Oliver who suggest that "once an issue has become a number, it's probably too late to deal with it."[20]

The candidate must not have:

  • Strong preconceptions (e.g., national patriotism, religious parochialism or dogmatism, professional specialization)

  • Inviolable allegiances (e.g., corporate, national, professional)

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.)


[1] Knights, L. C., SOME SHAKESPEAREAN THEMES, Stanford University Press and Chatto & Windus, Ltd., Standford and London, 1959.

[2] Liebert, Robert M. and Spiegler, Michael D., PERSONALITY: AN INTRODUCTION TO THEORY AND RESEARCH, The Dorsey Press, Georgetown, Ontario, 1970, p. 313.

[3] Donaldson, Gordon, and Lorsch, Jay W., DECISION MAKING AT THE TOP, Basic Books, New York, 1983, p.8

[4] Toffler, Alvin, FUTURE SHOCK,Random House, 1970.

[5] Toffler, Alvin, THE THIRD WAVE, Bantam Books, New York, 1981, pp. 2, 361.

[6] Shay, Paul, "Mental Maps of the Future," Address to the 1984 NASCP Convention, San Francisco, April 30, 1984.

[7] Compaine, Benjamin M., Review of work in progress and personal conversations, Program on Information Resources Policy, Harvard University, March 1984.

[8] Friedman, Edward A., Interview in "Planning Review," January 1984, p. 11.

[9] De Bono, Edward, LATERAL THINKING: CREATIVITY STEP BY STEP, Harper, New York, 1970.

[10] James, William, THE PRINCIPLES OF PSYCHOLOGY, Encyclopedia Brittanica Publishing, 1952.

[11] Weick, Karl, as quoted in Peters, Thomas J. and Waterman, Robert H., Jr., IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE, Harper & Row, New York, 1982, pp. 108, 134.

[12] Iverson, F. Kenneth, "Basic Industry: A View from the Top," Address to the 1984 NASCP Convention, San Francisco, May 2, 1984.

[13] Banks, Howard, "General Electric--Going with the Winners," FORBES, March 26, 1984, pp. 97-106.

[14] Peters, Thomas J. and Waterman, Robert H., Jr., op. cit.

[15] Shay, Paul, lect. cit.

[16] Sadat, Anwar, as quoted in FORBES, September 27, 1984, p. 212.

[17] Flahiff, F. T. and Colie, Rosalie L., ed., SOME FACETS OF KING LEAR: ESSAYS IN PRISMATIC CRITICISM, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1974, pp. vii-viii.

[18] El Sawy, Omar A., "Temporal Perspective and Managerial Attention: A Study of Chief Executive Strategic Behavior," Doctoral Dissertation, Stanford University, May 1983.

[19] Steinbruner, John, as quoted in Peters, Thomas J. and Waterman, Robert H., Jr., op. cit., p. 44.

[20] Oliver, Alex R. and Garber, Joseph R., "Implementing Strategic Planning: Ten Sure-Fire Ways To Do It Wrong," Business Horizons, March-April 1983, p. 50.