British Airways' official 'corporate jester'

Adapted extracts from articles by John Coopey and Rosemary Stafford, entitled 'Playing for profit' and 'Why Jester Paul is serious about his role', in Demos Quarterly (Issue 8, '96) and BA News (Oct 20th '96).

In 1995, British Airways employee Paul Birch was appointed as his company's official 'corporate jester'. Birch had approached his director of corporate strategy with the idea, on the grounds that an official jester might actually play a useful part in the company, just as medieval precursors had done in royal courts. Birch's thinking was that the modern board of directors is a bit like a medieval court, where no one questions the king or senior courtiers, because "they have become far too important for anybody to challenge ... as long as they can't possibly be wrong, they can continue doing the wrong things all the time and never know it".

A jester is one way of counteracting the tacit anxiety, fear and conformity which pervades this style of management, and inhibits open, creative thinking. The corporate jester is not part of the reporting structure and can question management without fear of repercussions. He can therefore serve a serious role as the mouthpiece for unorthodox criticism, couched as harmless jest.

'The corporate jester can serve a serious role as the mouthpiece for unorthodox criticism'

Paul Birch, who is also the author of a guide to business creativity for managers, was appointed to the court jester's role on a temporary, experimental basis in October 1995. A review of the experiment's success is to decide whether it is worth repeating.


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