Saturday, February 2, 2013

Of Organization Development Managers and Court Jesters

“Can I request you to give me an additional role?”, the Organization Development Manager asked the CEO. Noticing that the CEO was looking a bit confused and apprehensive, the Organization Development (OD) Manager continued;  “No, I am not asking you to add me to the senior leadership team. I am also not asking for any role that someone else is doing in our company. The additional role that I am asking for is that of a court jester – in the business context”!

Prima facie, roles of OD Managers and Court Jesters appear to be ‘strange bedfellows’. However, based on my 15 years of experience in OD (10 years of which in internal HR), I am increasingly realizing that one of the roles that an internal OD consultant (OD Manager in a business organization) needs to play is that of a ‘court jester’. 

Though the word 'jester' is often (incorrectly) interpreted to mean 'a fool', a jester (like Tenali Rama in the court of King Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara empire in India or William Sommers in the court of King Henry VIII in England) is a much more profound creature than a fool. At a superficial level, both a fool and a jester might appear quite similar. When we look at them more deeply, these similarities vanish.
While a fool entertains others by 'making a fool of himself', a jester enables others to laugh at themselves. While the techniques of a fool focuses mainly on the physical plane (doing funny things, acting in a funny manner etc.), jester operates mainly in the mental and/or spiritual plane (generating insights). We can also say that fools represent ‘simplicity on this side of complexity' (or simplicity that ignores the complexity) while jesters represent ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity’ (simplicity after working through the complexity). In terms of impact, a fool leaves his audience 'entertained' while the jester leaves his audience 'enlightened'. In terms of their influence, fools are quite 'peripheral' while jesters are quite 'central'. Jesters had the right (or even the 'duty') to criticize the king and get away with that (or even get rewarded for that!). Often, Jesters possess 'shibumi' (great refinement underlying commonplace appearances).

An OD professional is supposed to facilitate change. This change also involves ‘mindset change’ and ‘questioning deeply-held assumptions’. Again (with due respect to the ‘good press’ that ‘bottom up culture change’ enjoys), change often needs to begin 'at the top of the pyramid’ in business organizations because the role modeling behavior of the leaders is the most important factor that drives and sustains behavioral/culture change. So, one of the key requirements for OD professionals is to enable very senior people to change their mindsets and deeply held assumptions.
Sometimes, these mindsets and assumptions are very change resistant – even to the extent of being funny. For example, once I was invited by a business leader to transform the mindsets of the leaders in his organization. During the diagnosis when it was becoming increasingly clear that he was a major contributor to the problem and that he would need to make significant changes to his pattern of behavior, he made himself unavailable for the intervention saying that he was very busy and that it was his team members who needs to change. In another context, the HR head came to me and suggested that as the business leader can’t change his behavior (and as he won’t move out of the organization for the next few years), we need to train his team to enable them to work with him better. While it is an interesting idea ( to train the team to be better followers if the leader is immune to any leadership development efforts) it highlights two problems that are important for us here – the difficulty in getting the senior leaders to change and the high degree of fear that many of the HR leaders have when it comes to attempting any ‘change interventions on the business leaders’. Hence, OD professionals need to find ways to encourage business leaders to examine their decisions and their behavior/mindsets/deeply-held assumptions without offending them and without making the HR leaders too jittery.

This becomes even more important for an internal OD consultant (OD Manager in a business organization), as these senior people he needs to influence are higher up in the reporting chain (food chain!) of the organization. Often, there is an organization layer between the OD Manager and the business leaders (i.e. the OD Manager reports to the HR Head who in turn reports into the CEO). This makes influencing the business leaders on their mindsets and deeply held assumptions  very difficult (if not impossible) for the OD Manager, as it would require a lot of deep interactions with the business leaders that too over a long period of time. The OD managers might not get such an opportunity because of the way of functioning of the organization (‘organization culture’)  and as the HR Head might get threatened by such direct connection efforts!  Again, one of the de facto expectations from the layer below the CEO (e.g. in HR Head in this case) might be to protect the CEO from unpleasant information/interactions and even to maintain convenient collective delusions . If this is the case, it becomes very difficult for the HR Head to allow this kind of interactions between the OD Manager and the CEO as the HR Head (and may be the entire HR function) might have to suffer the possible ripple effects of such interactions!  
This is where the role of the jester comes in.  Jesters can draw attention to the blinds pots without making people defensive. Humor can go through the emotional defenses more easily as compared logic. Jesters can help the leaders to laugh at themselves. Jesters are less threatening because what the they say can be taken as a joke if the leader is not yet ready to accept the truth (and hence the jesters' 'intervention’ is an 'invitation to change' that does not ‘put the leader in a spot’).

Now, let us explore how we can make the role of the jester work in the context of business organizations. The way of the jester requires a high level of wisdom and refinement as the jesters need to walk a very thin line between causing enlightenment and causing offense. Also, this line is a dynamic one and walking it requires a very high degree of situational and interpersonal awareness. To avoid becoming a threat to other functionaries in the court (read the direct reports of the CEO -including the HR Head) the jester should always remain as some sort of an underdog or a wild card and should also remain detached from the office politics. Some of the concepts outlined in ‘Wisdom-level consulting' and ‘A political paradox for OD and HR' might be useful in this endeavor.
From a sustainability point of view, it would be best to create some sort of a formal mandate for the role  of the jester and provide it some sort of ‘diplomatic immunity’(so that the messenger does not get shot). Unless the OD Manager is mandated to be a ‘full-time jester’ (which might not be feasible as there are many other roles that the OD Managers play), we would also need some sort of  a signaling mechanism (corporate equivalent to the costume of the medieval jester) to indicate when the OD Manager is in the jester role.  Since elaborate costumes are not easy to put on and take off, maybe we can settle for a simple cap! If the organization is not willing to let the jester intervene whenever he wants to do so, there can be a designated 15 minutes ‘jester time’ in the middle of a business review meeting (where the jester gets to be an observer/'fly on the wall')!

If the business leader is not open to the interventions from the jester in the context of a meeting (where his direct reports are also present), this can be done on a one-to-one basis (at least to begin with). To be sustainable, the jester has to become a cherished rather than a tolerated presence. This can be accomplished by helping the business leaders to realize their mistakes by allowing them to see it for themselves. Rather than directly contradicting/confronting the business leader, the jester can encourage the business leader (by showing enthusiasm for the idea that the business leader has come up with) to think through the idea to its logical conclusion, so that the business leader herself/himself can realize its absurdity.  To make this happen, the jester should have high degree of business understanding (insight to the organizational truth) in addition to perceptiveness, wit and interpersonal sensitivity/awareness.

 It has to be noted that the jester is not just for the CEO. The jester is for the entire company. This role is relevant for facilitating change at all levels. Jesters can also facilitate creative problem solving – as creative problem solving requires questioning basic assumptions and exploring new (unusual) ways to look at old problems. Since these need to be facilitated across the organization, we might have to create 'jesters at all levels' or enable the employees to 'discover the jesters in themselves'!!   
So my fellow OD professionals, what do you think about this? Can the ‘jester role’ be made a part of the OD Manager’s job description?  Is it likely to work?  Do you want to explore the art of being a jester?


Asha Vaz said...

A very thought provoking article, that has touched upon a practical challenge that confronts corporate OD practitioners.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Asha!

bhumika said...

"Humor can go through the emotional defenses more easily as compared to what logic can" Completely loved it....These are small things which we fail to understand because we want to spend most of our time pretending to understand big ones..We forget that some small changes might really bring big results..After reading your article I feel that I can trust the way I think even more..Please keep writing about such ground realities which we tend to ignore in this blinding corporate shimmer...

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Bhumika.

Divya Chadha said...

It is indeed a well written article more than that an insightful article which touches upon ground realities. The comparison of OD professional to jester is witty. And the role of humor is required more than desired. The reference towards the thin line of offense and enlightenment is also worth pondering upon.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Divya!

Little Miss Muffet said...

Written masterfully with several pertinent analogies between the role of a jester and that of the OD consultant. Indeed the profession needs many more Tenali Ramans and Krishnadeva Rayas who give patronage to them. Fainlly, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, devils fall because of their gravity." (G.K. Chesterton)

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you very much Kavita. The ability to 'ask any question' without coming across as 'questioning' anyone is indeed very valuable!