Bell Labs and the “wise fools”
(The photo above shows Mrs Lyndon B Johnson talking with Bell Labs scientist Elizabeth A Wood on a picturephone in New York, 1964. Photo courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent / Bell Labs)
There’s a great story about Bell Labs, the American communications & IT pioneer and industrial research organization founded in the 1920s. Bell (now Nokia Bell Labs) was for a long time referred to as “The Idea Factory”, and won multiple Nobel Prizes for their ground-breaking work. The story, as I heard it, was about how they conducted their idea pitches, and what we’d now call ‘sprint reviews’. At the time, they had some strict – and somewhat unusual – rules.
Firstly, they had a rule that anyone who explained their concept or solution using jargon or complex terminology that couldn’t be understood by a layperson was entitled to have abuse hurled at them from the audience (their colleagues). They were essentially shouted down until they could articulate the concept in a simple and compelling way.
Secondly, there would always be a member of the audience (often the same, now legendary, developer) playing the role of the “wise fool”. The wise fool was empowered to ask any question – regardless of how naïve or silly seemed – of the presenter. And the presenter was compelled to provide an answer. If the answer was incomplete or unsatisfactory, the question would be repeated. Again and again, if necessary.
Wise fools challenge the status quo
Times have changed and hurling abuse at your colleagues is not a behaviour that’s condoned any more (nor should it be). And while agile methodologies and the quest to be “disruptive” have made the questioning approach of the wise fool more commonplace now than it was in the peak of Bell’s innovation, it’s still lacking in many organisational cultures. Which is a real risk.
The entire point of this process was to develop products which met the needs of the users, not the creators; the benefits of which could be articulated in a way that was compelling to those who would ultimately be purchasing. More creative or innovative solutions are often the by-product since this type of questioning challenges the status quo. Similar principles have been implemented in many of the most innovative organisations in the world: For example, Apple’s organisational culture features (among other things) “moderate combativeness” and Amazon has for years used “working backwards” methodology.
Ask positive, empowering questions
Regardless of how supportive the organisational or team culture is, it takes a lot of courage to perform the role of the wise fool. How many of us have sat in a meeting, not fully understanding what was being discussed, but not being willing to risk looking stupid (or risk making someone else look stupid) by asking a question? I’ve certainly been in that situation on a number of occasions in my career; reluctant to challenge something that my instinct told me wasn’t quite right, because I didn’t want to face a poor reaction to my question or look like I wasn’t as well informed as everyone else.
The trick to being a ‘good’ wise fool is not to ask questions simply to be belligerent. In his book Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, Professor Michael Marquardt of George Washington University recommends developing the skills to ask questions in a positive manner, focusing on empowering questions and avoiding disempowering, judgemental ones. He says:
“Disempowering questions are used to manipulate, mislead, or detour. They often give the responder the feeling of being interrogated. Some people become very skilled at this type of questioning, but it does not elicit any type of productive reflection, only defensive efforts to cover up mistakes and prevent another onslaught. On the other hand, questions can empower others to action.”
A wise fool’s questions should never be used to attack or apportion blame; that misses the point of the role. Rather, empowering questions enable the recipient to feel valued, respected and that their opinion is worthwhile. Leaders need to model the way here and call out counter-productive questioning behaviour.
The process of asking questions is invaluable
Professor Marquardt also emphasises that it’s the process of questioning that is the valuable part, rather than just finding the “right” answer:
“Questioning causes us to revisit the cognitive frameworks that help us to organise and process new information. Questioning what information is used to arrive at decisions can help refine how the organization gathers and processes information, which can improve overall effectiveness.”
It seems to me that the wise fools are the people who drive organisations forward. There’s a good reason Bell formalised this role back in the day, and that some of the most successful and inspiring organisations now use this approach in their own ways. Questioning the status quo can be confronting – for both parties – but it’s absolutely essential for long-term success.
About the Author
Kate Phillips joined Revelian in 2015, continuing a 20+ year career in B2B marketing which has spanned the HR and recruitment sectors internationally, as well as government, media, transport and construction.
Kate holds a Master of Management, Bachelor of Business and Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.