The Role & Place For A Devil’s Advocate

We’ve all been in those meetings. We are attempting to understand a problem, or brainstorm possible solutions, or simply try to figure out a way to advance forward. And for every idea, every option and every possibility that gets raised, there is someone in the corner shooting them down. It’s a bad idea. It can’t work. It’ll fail. We’ll look stupid. The idea is stupid.

Every argument has a counter argument. Every potential benefit is challenged by a drawback. Every hope is firmly quashed before it every really gets explored.

If you challenge the person on their behaviour, though, they feign innocence. They throw up their hands and say that they didn’t mean what they said. They were trying to help. They were only playing devil’s advocate.

That’s a lovely defence (for them, at least). Sometimes it’s even true. Sometimes, of course, it’s just a cover. Regardless of why it is being done (whether to resist change, because they are contrarian by nature or to genuinely try help a group probe and test their thinking) the behaviour as I’ve described it here is counterproductive and not helpful in the least. In fact, it’s often exceptionally destructive.

The origins of devil’s advocacy are interesting. The term “devil’s advocate” originates in the Catholic Church, and was the popular term for a role with the formal title of “Promoter of the Faith.” The role is a legal one involved in the canonization process, when a candidate is being considered for sainthood. The Promoter of the Cause was the canon lawyer responsible for arguing for sainthood (and is, unsurprisingly, also known as God’s advocate). The Promoter of the Faith had the job of arguing against canonization, taking a skeptical view of the character of the candidate and the evidence supporting any attributed miracles.

The term has evolved into more popular use as representing someone who simply takes a contrarian position. Sometimes this can be a genuine effort to explore ideas and test perspectives. Often, it’s offered as a defence when someone chooses to take an unpopular position they know will be socially unacceptable. And occasionally it’s someone who just likes to argue, and will take an opposite position from the group solely to stir up the pot and generate controversy. Black is white, cold is hot, right is wrong and theoretically plausible is emphatically impossible.

While there can be a time and place for devil’s advocacy, it most often unfortunately occurs when it’s least helpful, useful or even constructive. Which gives it a bit of a bad name and a worse reputation, unfortunately. Used effectively, the concept of devil’s advocacy can be incredibly constructive. Most of the time, thought, it’s just really annoying and unhelpful.

The problems of devil’s advocacy as it is popularly applied are many: how it is done, when it is done, by whom it is done and in particular why it is done. This is especially true in the age of internet populism, where trolls run amok in comment forums and contrarian arguments aren’t at all hard to find.

Dissent and opposite viewpoints can be informative, but they have their place and their time. Using them well requires clarity, focus and deliberate intent. Effective devil’s advocacy isn’t a voluntary role someone takes on because they think it might of benefit. It’s a deliberate, conscious choice, at the most appropriate and reasonable time, in order to test thinking.

To give some idea of what I’m referring to here, let’s shift gears a little bit and explore a related but different topic: risk management. Risk is about thinking of uncertainties that could potentially influence our projects. We tend to think of risks as what might go wrong, but it can just as much include what might go right. Any uncertainty that changes our plan is identified to understand the possibility of it occurring, and the potential impact if it does. As a result, we can figure out how to adjust our plan, and what we need to prepare in place the risk actually occurs.

The risks in question could be broad, and are often numerous. They might include the potential of a vendor to not meet a critical deadline. A technology solution might not work as designed or expected. Political support of a project might change. Acceptance of the project results might be resisted because of the magnitude of change associated with them. A planned acquisition might make things easier, because staff in the other organization are already familiar with the solution being implemented. All of these are things that might happen. There is no guarantee and no certainty, there is only possibility and potential impact.

What is key is when we think about assessing risk. We don’t do it as we are starting the planning process. In fact, risk identification usually doesn’t occur until the planning process is well advanced. Once we think we know our scope, our strategy and our approach, we have a clear assessment of what we know we will need to do. As we clarify schedule, effort estimates and costs, we have a greater appreciation of possible impacts of changes. The plan defines the work that has to be done. The risks identify the things that might occur that affects the plan.

There is some iteration here, of course. Once we identify risks, our responses might be to change the plan to manage and mitigate them. We might build in more reviews, or plan for additional change management activities. We might allow greater time or effort, or adjust the contingency funds we maintain to get the work done. As the plans change, the remaining uncertainties change, until we land on an approach that we can actually live with.

This illustration offers some important insight into how devil’s advocacy can work, and when and how to think about using it.

Being a devil’s advocate—or being in the presence of one—can be difficult. As a role, it’s deliberately oppositional. That can help test thinking and prove out ideas, but it needs to be used carefully and wisely.

The most common issue associated with devil’s advocacy when it isn’t helpful is that it gets exercised too early in the process. Contrarian perspectives and viewpoints aren’t necessarily useful early on. Creativity requires confidence and optimism. Opposition can stifle both of those qualities with astonishing ease.

Part of the challenge is about how we think, particularly when we are in problem solving mode. There are two essential thinking modes we use: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is about thinking broadly and expanding opportunities. We engage in divergent thinking when we brainstorm. When we explore. When we seek options. When we creatively try out ideas because they need to be tried, without considering whether or how they are relevant or irrelevant.

The key to successful divergent thinking is not pre-judging or censoring ideas. Everything is fair game. All ideas are good ideas until proven otherwise. And the time to prove them otherwise is later, not now.

Convergent thinking has the opposite focus: it narrows in and chooses. When we think conversantly, we are evaluating, prioritizing and selecting. We are choosing. We are weighing options, rejecting unreasonable ones and keeping favourable ones. We are working from many possible options to what we hope and believe is the best possible solution.

Once we think conversantly, we are applying criteria. We are making judgements. We are choosing options. Convergent thinking in theory involves rational thought, where we objectively and logically sift through and make choices. In reality, it also employs a lot of cognitive biases that short circuit rational thinking. Preferences, biases, beliefs and blind spots all influence how choice is made at this stage.

And this is where the devil’s advocate role actually becomes useful. At the point of deciding and assessing, contrarian viewpoints and critical challenges can be extremely relevant, even essential, to coming up with good plans. When we are engaging in presumably rational and reasoned thinking, effective devil’s advocacy can test whether or not that is the case. Done well, it can help to find holes, undermine arguments or frame alternative interpretations with the same data. A contrarian viewpoint at the time of decision can test whether we have thought things through fully, and have interpreted facts, preferences and principles as successfully as possible.

Getting to this point, and allowing for responsible and reasonable devil’s advocacy, requires a few fundamental factors to be put in play. In particular, it is helpful to think of the following points:

  • Suspend judgement early. This is essential, but also hard to do. Human beings naturally tend towards criticism and editing (and some are more prone than others). Creating space to brainstorm freely and creatively requires leaving judgement at the door. It requires not self-censoring, and it also requires not judging the contributions of others. We need to be willing to generate ridiculous alternatives, and contribute them without fear of ridicule. This is particularly true in that truly creative options often start with off-the-wall ones that then rebound in a way that is useful and relevant.
  • Consciously select the role of devil’s advocate. In other words, within the team or the group, there needs to be recognition that someone will be playing a devil’s advocate role, and who that person actually is. This is not a self-nominated position. It is one that is consciously chosen and decided upon. More importantly, it is a role that is assigned to a specific person or subset of the group (not the whole group in its entirety). Those in the devil’s advocate role challenge and try to poke holes; the rest of the team defends, responds and tries to shore them up.
  • Decide when the role will come into play. In particular, recognize that when the role is useful is close to a decision point. Once a potential solution (or several solutions) are well advanced in their thinking, and choices need to be made, challenge is reasonable. Once a plan is well conceived, it is important to test and assess its realism and viability. Once a decision is required, confronting whether it is the right decision is critical. Specifically declared the time in the planning or problem solving process when work is sufficiently advanced that critical judgement and testing is most appropriate.
  • Decide when the role stops. Responsible devil’s advocacy is not an on-going role. It doesn’t evolve into the right to continue to challenge, snipe or say “I told you so.” It plays a particularly point at a particular time to test and evaluate decisions. Once alternatives have been assessed and a decision has been made, the role goes away. The team members revert back to their normal roles. The group as a whole gets behind the decision that has been made, and works to successfully deliver the results as effectively as possible.

Responsible devil’s advocacy is possible. It is also useful. This is not to say that devil’s advocacy won’t still be incredibly annoying. It is, and it probably always will be. As human beings, we don’t typically like being challenged. But we need to open ourselves up to challenge and test decisions, particularly where their consequences are significant. Formally allowing contrarian perspectives allows us to do this. Surviving the challenge also gives us confidence in going forward with the choice we have made. The challenge is doing it the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons.

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