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Devil’s Advocates: Truly Evil or Heaven Sent?

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Image credit: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

Devil’s Advocates: Truly Evil or Heaven Sent?
May 1, 2017

We’ve all had that great idea for a work innovation shot down by a colleague with a laundry list of issues arguing against us. This person is a thorn in your side, puts you on the defensive, and generally makes your life miserable. But viewed another way, this person can be your greatest ally. After all, isn’t it better to work out the kinks in your idea earlier rather than when the boss is evaluating it?

Businessdictionary.com defines a devil’s advocate as: a person who identifies and challenges the flaws in an assessment, plan, or strategy. A broader and more pessimistic definition is provided by Merriam-Webster: a person who champions the less accepted cause for the sake of argument.

In fact, a Google search on the definition brings up many that assume the devil’s advocate’s role is one intent on ruining creativity, sabotaging ideas, and generally, well, acting devilish. There is much debate on whether they hurt businesses more than they help. In “The Problem with Devil’s Advocates,” Tim Sanders goes on the offensive:

When someone at work has a new idea about a product or a process, we take on the role of devil’s advocate before they’ve even expressed half the idea. We treat them like idiots, posing objections to them in a tone of voice that suggests, “have you even considered the obvious?” We do the same thing at home. Our kid has an idea for a business and we go into skeptic mode, shooting down her enthusiasm before the food hits the table. In every situation, we don’t improve the way the ideator thinks. Research suggests that only authentic dissent (You truly think it’s a bad idea) can provoke a better idea. When you argue for the sake of argument, you merely bolster the ideator’s conviction as well as her feelings that she’s all alone on this one.

However, in Why every executive team should have a Devil’s Advocate,” researchers Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony found that executive teams would be better served to spend less time confirming their assumptions when making business decisions and more time questioning them.

In their study, Lovallo and Sibony distinguished between an executive team’s process for making a decision and the analysis that informed the particular decision. The former refers to which people were brought into the room and the way in which the discussion was governed; the latter refers to the rigor of the research (e.g., financial modelling, sensitivity modelling, potential market impact).

Below are three tips for executive teams looking to improve how they go about making decisions:

  • Resist the allure of confidence. When confronted with an important decision, it can be tempting to eliminate all doubt. Consensus is, after all, reassuring. Lovallo and Sibony discovered, however, that teams that maintained a healthy sense of uncertainty tended to make far better decisions than those that did not. While confidence is alluring, it tends to impede sound decision-making by marginalizing legitimate criticism.
  • Solicit outside perspectives. Executive teams tend to bring only the organization’s most senior members to the decision table. Lovallo and Sibony strongly question the efficacy of this approach. Their research suggests that expertise and experience, not merely rank or title, should be considered when sending out meeting invitations. The reasoning is simple: The broader the scope of perspectives, the lower the risk for blind spots.
  • Nominate a Devil’s Advocate. Lovallo and Sibony found that the most effective decision-making processes embraced contrarian critiques. Yet in many executive boardrooms dissension can be viewed as analogous to treason. An effective way to circumvent this very human reaction is to institutionalize the role of Devil’s Advocate. Essentially, someone should be nominated to poke holes in the team’s assumptions and strategies. By re-framing dissent as valuable, the Devil’s Advocate can help the team arrive at better decisions without becoming a pariah. Doing so also has the added benefit of normalizing useful but critical feedback by mitigating the fear of reprisal.

I tend to agree that devil’s advocates are a good thing, as I have direct experience working with several. My interactions with them, while initially frustrating, eventually showed me how valuable they could be in my success. Knowing they would be there to question me forced me to do much more homework up front than I normally would have – I wanted to be ready for what I knew was coming. In some cases, I determined during that process that my idea wasn’t the greatest thing after all and saved everyone a lot of time – not to mention saved myself embarrassment.

Again, assuming we’re not talking about a Negative Ned or Nellie, but a colleague with truly good intentions, your devil’s advocate can be beneficial to your organization and to your own success – helping to ensure a thoughtful and insightful discussion during brainstorming and planning processes.

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One thought on “Devil’s Advocates: Truly Evil or Heaven Sent?

  1. I think the issue is timing: If the idea is being floated, then the Devil’s Advocate is an idea-killer. If a project team is considering an option (and committing resources to it), the Devil’s Advocate is merely vetting an idea. The trick is to understand when improv (Yes, And) and debate (Yes, But) are required. Otherwise, all ugly babies (new ideas) will be thrown out with the bath water.

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