The feast of fools of feedback

Carnival season is approaching! A special season where licence and libations precede long fasting.

Related to the carnival, but taking place in December, the feast of fools is another fascinating popular event that marked Western Europe’s history from the sixth to the sixteenth century. The idea of the feast of fools was indeed to bestow “power, dignity and impunity […] to those in a subordinate position.” A mini social revolution that perhaps helped keep the sanity of the society of the time by allowing an extraordinary amount of pressure to come off the system in a structured outburst of freedom.

Feast of fools (Bruegel)
The feast of fools (Bruegel) - why not use that powerful frustration outlet for our modern age?

I’ve always thought that – with careful design and due ‘facilitation’ – it might be a good idea to try such a feast of fools in an organisation. It may not have to follow the medieval model and be reserved exclusively to those who don’t have power, but it could just be organised as a day when everyone might feel free to give feedback to anyone else in any possible way. With or without a mask (as was the case in the middle age)…

Of course this might go terribly wrong. Medieval time celebrations and their Roman ancestor, Saturnalia, also went out of hand occasionally. This is where a sound dash of structure could come in handy; and there are plenty of options to ‘frame’ that feast of fools: a short presentation on how to give feedback? Having all staff wear a disguise, mimicking the age-old mask function? Feedback provided not verbally but in writing or post it notes mysteriously stuck on the walls? Theatrical enactment of the issues that deserve feedback? There are many options…

The idea has not been tried out to my very limited knowledge. And if it was put to test, perhaps even after a few try-outs in a more limited environment, it might prove a powerful cathartic learning exercise that would help a) feel better indeed about letting go of some deep thoughts, b) revealing unexplored, below-the-table issues that deserve improvement, c) reinforcing a culture of feedback and d) offer another opportunity for creative thinking…

As I’m starting this new year of blogging, perhaps it’s also your chance to test this idea in practice on this blog by freely providing any feedback, however critical, about this blog and what I do with it between now and this Friday?

Now, that was a shoot… hopefully not just a ‘shoot me’.

Related blog posts:


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. @NancyVanDijke
    You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps well facilitated and introduced in ‘safe spaces’ this could approach. When I raised that idea at my previous organisation no one was ready to take the risk anyway. But I don’t despair… Will come the time when it is possible to have such frank feedback among us… Thank you for your comment!

  2. It’s an enticing idea… The only problem might be that in the Middle Ages, rank was more or less absolute. It could and would be easily restored after such a feast. In modern times we all believe to be equal, the more lucky ones getting the better jobs. A reversal of rank would prove the modern point we are all equal anyway and there could be a problem of restoring authority afterwards, which for the medieval mind was God-given and completely ‘natural’.

  3. @Chahira: Definitely being informed about each other is an essential prerequisite to give feedback. I had in mind small to medium companies, up to 60-70 employees. In those companies there are still silos, isolation and lack of awareness as to what others do, but it’s also easier to bridge those gaps and know at least a bit about what they’re up to. Furthermore, what I pictured was a process when people would give feedback only to the people they feel like giving feedback to, thus avoiding that problem.
    And yes, the format matters, although pointing fingers is actually part of the concept of the ‘feast of fools’. A bit like ritual dissent, it doesn’t matter if people are giving negative feedback, so long as giving that kind of feedback is framed and guided by the principles of the assignment.
    Thanks for the update on the carnival in Germany! Sounds like you’re going to have some fun!

    @D.Kernohan: Thank you for this very useful addition. Education, critical thinking, I can’t agree more. I blogged about something very much in line with this a while back:
    Yes, it should be part of education. For all of us. But it’s far from the being the norm, therefore other measures – like the ‘on-the-road-education patches’ that our life of working adults provides us – help in getting to that critical thinking and critical sharing.
    Thanks for the encouragement, it sounds like there’s a really interesting train of ideas there which I also need to further investigate.



  4. Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on the Carnivalesque (with particular attention to the work of François Rabelais) suggested the carnival as a wider “cultural code” rather than just limiting it to a particular time and place. There’s a huge relevance to current debates around the free internet (the idea of multiple voices) and parody in intellectual property law (the idea of “forbidden laughter”. As he puts it “Carnival is the place for working out a new mode of interrelationship between individuals”.

    Rather than a single event, I’d want to see a greater resistance to ideas of hierarchy and “expertism” in education. And students should be actively encouraged to critique (even in the piss-taking, rabelaisian way) the educational structures in which they exist.

    Great post and a wonderful train of thought. I’d love you to write more on this idea.

  5. Yesterday, I had to cancel an online meeting that was meant for getting feedback on a paper. It was a nice mixture of capricious technology, very small audience and time pressure that contributed to this failure. It made me reflect on what are the sine-qua-non elements/conditions to have for an online meeting to succeed and if this option was ideal to get feedback. But I leave this for another blog post.

    Coming back to the idea of a feast, I found that great! Here, in Bonn at the heart of the “Rheinland” in North Rhine-Westphalia, Carnival is a very important time. You can´t escape that celebration. So the tradition is there and everyone knows about it. And I think that a feast from Carnival can be implemented, I mean ” We, know how to do it!”
    What we know less though, is a bit more about each other in an organization. We very often have no idea or very little knowledge about the projects, initiatives and mandates we as an organization, are involved in. I think this applies to my organization but I am pretty sure it is also common in many other places. We all now about, or have been helping out or organizing one of these “Open Days” where we want to show the World, who we are and what we do. I wonder if we do have, this type of “fair” within the organization and for the organization! The knowledge Fairs are one of the few examples I know of.

    My point is that we need some background and only then we can give feed back and feed forward a chance. The format remains important as we want to have this as celebration of exchange and avoid pointing fingers, IMHO.

  6. Thank you both for your comments!

    @Michelle: Yes, correct. But that’s often too far-fetched for most people when even critical feedback is difficult to expect. Feedback is a very delicate orchid that requires a lot of care to blossom. But feed forward is the future! And I try to practice it from time to time.

    @Nancy: Sounds fascinating. And you’re right, a virtual environment might be much safer for this kind of experiment. We’re going to have to crack the fear of feedback and failure and feebleness at some point though, there’s no better way to go forward. But back to the previous comment, it’s all part of tending to the orchid little by little.

  7. How about feed forward? i.e. Telling people what you would like to see in the future rather than digging up the past….

  8. This seems related to some work friends have done with anonymous participation in Second Life to work on learning about drug and alcohol addiction issues, where our professional identity and “rational” approaches can be blinders as much as anything else (This project, out of GippsTAFE in Australia, was also a great success from what I understand.) The question about cultural and organizational taboos make an online experiment perhaps easier than F2F. Ironic, eh?

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