Modern Court Jesters

Orig­i­nal­ly, court jesters were not enter­tain­ers or jok­ers, but seri­ous char­ac­ters. They had an impor­tant task and were an inte­gral part of the court. Their fool­ish­ness, how­ev­er, relieved them of the social norms and allowed them to express griev­ances and (reli­gious) mis­con­duct in a more or less sub­tle and humor­ous way, thus inspir­ing the author­i­ties to reflect and rethink. Because of this “fool’s free­dom” they were a social insti­tu­tion of per­mis­si­ble crit­i­cism. The sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers in agile orga­ni­za­tions means in the last con­se­quence also a renais­sance of this ven­er­a­ble social insti­tu­tion of the court jester in per­son of the Scrum Master.

The Scrum Mas­ter is also much more than a come­di­an, although the plea­sure of work­ing in a sus­tain­able way should not be neglect­ed. The Scrum Guide defines him as a ser­vant leader who helps both the team and the sur­round­ing orga­ni­za­tion to reflect on and improve process­es, work­ing meth­ods and cul­ture. He is less a man­ag­er, teacher or guardian of the team than a coach, sys­tem thinker and orga­ni­za­tion­al developer.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


While the Scrum Mas­ter focus­es on the effec­tive­ness of his team, he is well aware of the sys­temic con­text in which it is embed­ded. No team is an island and much of a team’s effec­tive­ness depends on its inter­ac­tions with oth­er teams and the rest of the orga­ni­za­tion and its cul­ture. The Scrum Mas­ter must also be able to hold up the mir­ror to the orga­ni­za­tion and the author­i­ties work­ing in it and put his fin­ger in the wound in order to make his team more effec­tive. And he can only do that if he enjoys a bit of this fool’s freedom.

Prob­lems that arise in organ­i­sa­tions are almost always the prod­uct of inter­ac­tions of parts, nev­er the action of a sin­gle part. Com­plex prob­lems do not have sim­ple solutions.

Rus­sel Ackoff

This free­dom can be pro­mot­ed in terms of the already men­tioned sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers by delib­er­ate­ly plac­ing the Scrum Mas­ters out­side the rest of the hier­ar­chy. A Scrum Mas­ter who has the same boss as his team and this boss is per­haps even the prod­uct own­er, will find it rather dif­fi­cult (depend­ing on his per­son­al incli­na­tion to insur­rec­tion) to hold up the mir­ror to the orga­ni­za­tion and its author­i­ties. There­fore it helps to place these mod­ern court jesters like their medieval role mod­els out­side the rest of the hier­ar­chy with a direct con­nec­tion to the “king”.

Every sys­tem is per­fect­ly designed to get the results it gets.

W. Edwards Deming

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Quinn McRae 22. November 2019 Reply

Do you think there is any way to insti­tute a mod­ern court jester into Amer­i­can par­lia­men­tary procedures?

Marcus Raitner 28. November 2019 Reply

With your cur­rent pres­i­dent? Prob­a­bly not …

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