Team Management Systems

The Court Jester as a Metaphor for Learning and Change

By Chris Patty
Copyright © Chris Patty. All rights reserved.

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This article has a focus on the Learning Organization Conference. It can be adapted to a variety of situations for training and consulting.

Change and learning are two interconnected processes. Richard Beckhard and Wendy Pritchard describe change as a learning process and learning as a change process. Not all change however implies new learning. For example, if I change my clothes to another set that I have worn previously, there may be little novelty in the experience (well at least for me). But in the sense that organizations today describe change, they assume some dissatisfaction with the way things are and enter into either planned or unplanned change processes with an incomplete sense of knowing what the outcomes will be. Change in this case implies new learning and to have new learning may require changes at a number of levels - interpersonal, interpersonal or group.

The demands on organizations to change and increase their flexibility in delivery of services and products to both internal and external customers has lead to increased ambiguity for employees. Learning needs to be situation specific and continuous to enable people to handle ambiguity. Metaphors can be powerful vehicles for encouraging learning because they allow individuals to identify with personally relevant images that reinforce learning concepts. In particular the metaphor can illuminate issues around challenging assumptions, risk taking, reflection, game playing, creativity and 'unlearning'.

The court jester as a metaphor for learning and change is appropriate for a number of reasons. Wise Kings and Queens would not think of ruling without a Jester to express the joy of life and to entertain them and the court. This was not their only function though. Jesters have a license to say what other people would be hanged for, to puncture the ruler's ego when as Carole Pearson says "...the ruler is in danger of hubris...", and to generally provide balance to the kingdom by breaking rules and thereby allowing an outlet for forbidden insights, behaviors and feelings.

Organizations need 'rule-breakers' to challenge assumptions about how things are done. They also need to look at how rule breakers are traditionally seen in their midst and question the support or lack of it that is usually afforded these people. This is not to suggest that 'rules' have no purpose. It was only through the naive jester in a child, however, that the emperor's folly was exposed in The Emperor's New Clothes. The jester then, can be most helpful in dealing with the modern world. He enables coping with the rapid change of pace of today's organizations. He delights by breaking rules and highlighting the absurdities in rules and regulations that can't keep pace.

The contribution of the jester to our lives is resilience, the capacity to get up and try again, to take a risk. Cartoon characters are fools or jesters. They bounce from one scene to the next with seemingly endless variety. One never knows when or where they will pop up. All jesters wear disguises to make their appearance less distinguishable. They aren't restricted to men either. Mae West was an excellent jester. This was partly due to her ability to challenge sexual taboos with an irreverent sense of humor.

As well as being aware of the vitality of the jester we may also experience the shadow jester when the joy goes out of our lives. Humor and despair are two points some distance apart on a continuum. In these times we may experience lack of motivation, self-indulgence, laziness, or irresponsibility. Being aware of these different aspects of the jester, then enables us to reflect on our own learning needs and how we differ in our moment to moment responses to life.

The jester is a master game player. Sometimes the jester can even fool us that we are playing one of Eric Berne's Games People Play. When we learn to be conscious of the games we play whether in social or organizational settings, they may be used for purposes other than keeping us entertained or gaining an advantage or revenge.

The jester is the aspect of the inner child that knows how to play. It is at the root of our basic sense of aliveness which expresses itself as a primitive, childlike spontaneous and playful creativity. The fool or jester knows how to live in the 'here and now'. This aspect of the jester is significant for change practitioners. To enact planning processes, the past must be acknowledged, as well as accepting that it can't be changed. The future needs to be envisioned with the realization that because it hasn't happened it also cannot be directly affected. The only opportunity we have to act is in the thin window of time called the present. It is by acting in the present that we hope to affect the future. This is where the jester lives. Revelling in the moment and being fully alive.

'Unlearning' is as important in change as 'new' learning. Some of our present knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions about how the world is may have gone past their used by and inhibiting our growth. The jester allows us to hold a mirror to ourselves and examine our own foibles. When we can do this with genuine humor and catch a sense of our very 'humanness' we can open ourselves to new learning experiences.

Without the jester in each of us, there is no capacity to enjoy life for its own sake. It knows how to play the moment for all its worth in joy, and experience even the more negative parts of our life if only for the drama. It allows for hope.

Copyright © Chris Patty. All rights reserved.

Chris Patty is an accredited member of the Team Management Systems Network. He can be contacted at:

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