You and your team have spent weeks getting a plan together for a new product, service or strategy. To arrive at this plan, you’ve interviewed and surveyed numerous stakeholders, conducted market and competitive research, worked out detailed launch and support plans, generated proforma financials and created a great PowerPoint presentation for executive management review and approval.
It’s been a long haul but, finally, everyone is on the same page, and everything is ready to go for a great success – or is it? Inviting a Devil’s Advocate into your business can help answer this question.
The Consensus Conundrum
It can feel like a major accomplishment when you and your team reach a consensus, particularly when facing the pressures of a tight timeline or a high-profile project. Consensus can lead to high confidence in the quality of decisions and expected success when the team believes that potential errors and omissions have been adequately addressed. Such confidence may be a misleading illusion created by cognitive bias and group-think.
“I probably believe that the worst opinions in my court have been unanimous. Because there’s nobody on the other side pointing out all the flaws.”Antonin Scalia, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
Cognitive bias and group-think are normal human behaviors that can successfully confound anyone, even those who are smart and experienced. In an article entitled, The Case for Behavioral Strategy, the McKinsey Quarterly reported a survey of over 2,200 executives, making two important observations regarding the harmful power of bias and group-think:
- Cognitive biases affect the most important strategic decisions made by the smartest managers in the best companies
- Strategic plans often ignore competitive responses
The article stated that 60% of the survey respondents thought that bad decisions were about as frequent as good ones and 12% of respondents thought good decisions were altogether infrequent. Given the potential number of questionable decisions being made, the use of a Devil’s Advocate is a step worth considering.
What is Devil’s Advocacy?
Devil’s Advocacy is a centuries-old approach where an independent analyst (aka the Devil’s Advocate) who was not involved in the original decision-making process provides a critique. The Devil’s Advocate role is to assume a contrarian view while critically evaluating assumptions and decisions to propose an alternative perspective.
There is no strict step-wise process for Devil’s Advocacy and the Devil’s Advocate may incorporate a variety of methods such as interviews, independent research, and claims confirmation. The Devil’s Advocate’s goal is not to demean the original decision-makers and planners but to help ensure that assumptions and decisions are realistically reasonable.
Devil’s Advocacy may be used to critique the majority view whether the majority view is positive or negative. The Devil’s Advocate, for example, may propose reasons why the next product launch could result in failure or suggest how a project that seems doomed might be turned around.
Selecting a Devil’s Advocate
Enterprises that assign an internal employee as a Devil’s Advocate may likely fail to obtain a frank critique because the employee is part of the business and so less able to create a perspective that isn’t influenced by their environment. The ideal Devil’s Advocate should be selected on factors of independence, breadth of perspective and temperament.
“If group members see the Devil’s Advocacy as an analytic exercise they have to put with with…this exercise may actually enhance the majority’s original belief”Structured Analytic Techniques, Richards Huer, Randolph Pherson
Independence speaks to the ability to work outside of your company’s social dynamics and ingrained beliefs. Further, fear of retribution and lack of commitment can be powerful disincentives to an internal Devil’s Advocate.
Fear of Retribution
Employees are understandably reluctant to question the assumptions and decisions of fellow employees with whom they work. Internal Devil’s Advocates recognize that their own work could be the subject of future analysis by a fellow employee who is tasked as an internal Devil’s Advocate. An external Devil’s Advocate brings objectivity to their analysis, maintaining an open and honest evaluation.
Lack of Commitment
Employees serve a vital role in sustaining the business that employs them and this role rightly occupies their focus. When called upon to serve as an internal Devil’s Advocate, employees may view the assignment as a distraction to their main duties. Faced with the choice of spending quality time on their main responsibilities or the role of Devil’s Advocate, especially when coupled with a fear of retribution, employees may complete the assignment as quickly as possible and deliver a foregone conclusion that supports the original assumptions and decisions.
Breadth of Perspective
Breadth of perspective refers to a consideration of original assumptions and decisions on a host of related outcomes. Businesses may be understandably inclined to seek a Devil’s Advocate who has deep knowledge and experience in a narrow domain. Technical analysis of a new drug, for example, will require an expert with extensive education and experience in physiology and drug development. This kind of technical review, however, is different from Devil’s Advocacy within the business domain.
Devil’s Advocate in business should have broad experience in a variety of business topics such as market and competitive research, customer segmentation, financial modeling, product development and launch. These experiences enable the Devil’s Advocate to employ critical and systems-thinking to consider the big picture as they construct an alternate perspective to the prevailing, majority opinion. Such broad business experience is often found in individuals who have held senior roles in product, market or program management and who were ultimately responsible for planning and execution.
Temperament refers to a demeanor that is both calm and calming. By the nature of the role, a Devil’s Advocate works in an environment that is prone to high emotions and stress among all participants. It’s just human nature to rigorously defend one’s own beliefs and decisions, especially when an unknown outsider who is not steeped in the same corporate culture and shared experiences expresses an opposing opinion.
The hands-on experiences of Devil’s Advocates enable them to empathize with those whose work they review, remaining level-headed as they encounter obfuscation, dismissive responses, and outright hostile outbursts. Maintaining a calm and balanced demeanor helps the Devil’s Advocate to keep everyone’s emotions in check, focuses everyone on issues rather than personalities, and encourages open and productive discussion.
Devil’s Advocacy is a useful tool to avoid cognitive bias and group-think in decision-making. An independent Devil’s Advocate for business can assess assumptions, decisions and plans to create an alternate perspective that constructively challenges the prevailing view. Devil’s Advocacy can help ensure successful outcomes at the beginning of projects and help turn-around projects that may appear hopeless. It is critical to select an independent Devil’s Advocate who has the right breadth of perspective and temperament for the task.