Playing the Fool: What can Shakespeare teach us about driving change?


by John Christian

I am so attracted to Agile methods is because there is this parallel theme running across every good implementation I've seen. In Scrum in particular, we take the time to inspect and adapt both the product we're building but also the team that's building it - seeking to improve the value of both.

Scrum Masters are called to be agents of change in an organisation. They seek to refine and adapt their framework to facilitate growth, innovation and sustainability - change for the better. This is no small calling and the most important role of an effective Servant-Leader. I am passionate about change. I marvel at what a performing team, one that is adaptable to change, can accomplish. I am constantly looking for ways to grease these teams with high-octane, performance grade oil. One of the most powerful canisters in my repertoire is a deep understanding on what makes a powerful change agent. Be it the Scrum Master role or otherwise, an effective change agent is someone who, as Shakespeare wrote, can ‘Play The Fool’.

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, And to do that well craves a kind of wit. He must observe their mood on whom he jests, The quality of persons, and the time, And, like the haggard, check at every feather that comes before his eye. This is a practise as full of labor as a wise man’s art, For folly that he wisely shows is fit. But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit. - William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

If that reading gave more of a headache than an insight, consider if you will the modernised version of this passage.

This guy is wise enough to play the fool, and only clever people can do that. He pays attention to the mood and social rank of the person he’s joking with, and also to the time of day. And he doesn’t let go of his target when a distraction appears. His job requires as much effort and skill as any wise man’s occupation could. And he shows he’s very smart at playing the fool, while smart people look stupid when they play the fool. - William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. Modernised Version.

It's important to note the attributes of the Fool in Shakespearian times. The Fool was not simply a bumbling idiot tripping over himself in order to obtain cheap laughs. A Fool would enter the Kings Round and artfully deconstruct the questionable political decisions of the King and reconstruct them in a way that was not only palatable to the King and his court, but to the masses. He would quite literally make the King laugh at his own deficiencies and get paid for doing so. In contrast, A Kings 'Advisor' may have his head swiftly removed for such a blunt versioning of the Fool's approach, but the Fool eloquently tap dances around the political land-mines in a way that does not damage egos or estrange. The King, I can imagine, would retreat to his quarters after being entertained by the Fool as the smile slowly fades from his face would perhaps think to himself, "Hmm.. Perhaps I am over-using the phrase 'Winter is Coming'.". The Fool was more than just a change agent; he was wise enough to bring about change by a sublime reflection of the Kings decisions back to himself in a way that did not damage his ego and without creating dissent among the King's Men.

Political Fool's exist today. Clarke and Dawe (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) have been successfully reconstructing the poor decisions of our politicians for over 25 years. The Fool will always exist because they are uniting. It does not matter which wing of politics you tend towards - you will always enjoy a well-crafted fools message -even if it attacks your ideologues. But more than that, a fools message crafted in a way that brings you onside, can be a major agent of change.

Changing one's self is very much like Neo's Matrix. No-one can tell you how to change, you have to see it for yourself - A Fool shines the light deep into the recesses of your thinking, and like Dicaprio's "Inception", allows you to feel you've singlehandedly identified your need for change and come to your own conclusions. What a magical skill!

Bringing this back to Scrum in particular, the emotional intelligence of an effective Scrum Master is the most undervalued and overlooked characteristic I have come across in the various companies I've worked with. All too often, a Scrum Master is simply a tech-lead (the person who knows most about the technical nature of what is being developed). A tech-lead is often a terrible agent for change, in fact programmers across the board typically make sub-par Scrum Masters - they are trained to think logically, fractally and logistically. They are not trained in navigating the emotions of their peers and quite often are more likely to be considered a Kings Advisor than a Kings Fool. A pure logically thinking mind is not a powerful agent of change. Avoid hiring Scrum Masters based on their technical understanding of your paradigm but look for those Shakespearian qualities that will assist in change from the inside out.

Playing the Fool is not just about improving your Agile process, this is a life lesson. Be the fool in your relationships where a certain tactical nouse is required when navigating tricky terrain. Ask the simple questions, ask open ended questions, deconstruct the process and reconstruct in a palatable painting for all to admire. Do not confuse it with playing dumb, as Shakespeare writes, you are directed and purposeful in your approach, but you are doing so in a common, simplistic manner understood by all in an environment that is trusted by all. This is a wise art and one I will never stop trying to master.

Posted by

John Christian