Wise Fool


I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace.

-- The fool, King Lear, act 1, scene 3.

...a team has been established and is functioning. It is faced with a continual barrage of technical and non-technical challenges, about which it must make decisions.

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Interpersonal dynamics often discourage good ideas from being aired, and bad ideas from being weeded out.
There are two dynamics at work here, depending on the persons involved. Authority figures are often unchallenged: you might be reluctant to challenge your boss because of the perceived danger to your employment. People are also loathe to challenge the word of a respected elder in the organization for slightly different reasons. But this tends to keep allow bad ideas promoted by authority figures to promulgate without sufficient challenge and discussion.

The other dynamic is the group itself. It is difficult to stand up in the face of the entire group to challenge an idea. These days, such troublemakers are rarely tarred and feathered, but they might be ostracized, or labeled "not a team player."

Yet somebody needs to be the catalyst to cause occasional group introspection. Someone needs to shout the warning when the group heads in the wrong direction.


Nurture the role of the wise fool, who can raise uncomfortable truths with impunity.

The WiseFool asks the questions that may be unpopular or seem politically risky, but they make the project pause and reexamine decisions. Often, many people want to ask the same question, but do not dare. Wise fools have a mix of insight, candor, and foolhardiness.

The Wise Fool is legendary. The most famous Wise Fool may well be found in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. It was a small boy who had the courage to point out the obvious.

The WiseFool is much like a PublicCharacter. But it differs in that the PublicCharacter makes the group function smoothly, while the WiseFool focuses mainly on the outputs of the group--mainly technical. But like the PublicCharacter, the WiseFool is not designated, but emerges. A WiseFool is usually highly respected technically, and may been be (or become) a LegendRole, but is known for lack of tact. They usually eschew managerial opportunities, and may even show disdain for management. An acquaintance of the author was once honored with the words, "In the face of management opposition, he charged ahead and did what was right."

Some organizations recognize WiseFools. One organization we studied included a role called "Agitator".

A WiseFool needs to recognize the difference between asking legitimate questions and whining. Questioning things that one has no control over is often construed as whining. With too many such questions, the court of public opinion can demote a WiseFool to a Whiner rather quickly.

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Organizations who have the good fortune to have a WiseFool in their midst are likely to make fewer wrong decisions than other organizations. However, the WiseFool may not receive the recognition they deserve; they may be perceived as troublemakers. This is slightly reminiscent of SacrificeOnePerson, in a strange sort of way. Managers should be sensitive to this, and make sure that WiseFools are supported.

Note that the key here is that the organization itself must be willing to accept criticism from within. There will always be people around willing to fill this role, but only the healthy organizations benefit from their insights. In fact, it often doesn't come naturally even to healthy organizations. Some organizations within Siemens hold workshops to help create a culture where people can speak out [BibRef-Ackermann2002]. Unhealthy organizations may ignore, or even worse, actively suppress criticism. This creates a climate of fear of speaking out, which leads to widespread cynicism. In such cases, a few WiseFools will refuse to be silenced, and become whistle-blowers. When they report illegal conduct to authorities, they may even need laws to protect their actions.