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SagaciousThinking Blog

Musings from the team.

Be Grateful for the Devil's Advocate

A board on which I am active just lost a critical member who played the crucial role of devil's advocate.  I suspect he never signed up intending to assume this position, nor did he appreciate the sometimes less than enthusiastic responses to some of his view.  But I found him invaluable, and a great reminder that every strong organization needs someone in this role.  (Mind you it does not need to be the same person all the time.)

On more than one occasion the board started to proceed down a path until he raised relevant questions: “why this approach?”  “Is this counter to our charter? “ Maybe, maybe not, but his questions gave the group pause and the opportunity to confirm we considered all relevant information rather than just agreeing with the recommendations as that was the path of least resistance.

To add some perspective as the term “Devil’s Advocate” is thrown around with great regularity, and often without knowing the origins of the term, the Catholic Church developed the role of Devil’s advocate in 1587.  The job of the person selected for this role was to argued against the canonization of candidates for sainthood. Pope John Paul abolished the role in 1983 and the effects were telling.  Prior to his tenure, only 98 canonizations were performed by all of his 20th century predecessors.  Upon the abolishment of the role nearly 500 canonizations. 

If a team has a majority of likeminded people, gaining consensus is easy, but are the decisions really the best outcome? This sort of easy consensus is often exacerbated by the global environment in which we operate today, we’re removed from the team on a conference call, and so reading body language or voice intonations is challenging if not impossible.  Having someone comfortable and strong enough to speak up increases the likelihood that all options and risks are considered.   This ability is critical to improve the odds that only viable projects are brought forward and potential risk is scrutinized.

Some loving care is required to nurture your devil’s advocate: 

  • Acknowledge their role and value they bring
  • Let them be heard, do not stifle them
  • Consider this position and confirm that the point they make must be considered or explain why it does not apply
  • Defend them if necessary and restate to the group the value they play

If you feel that their input is too disruptive and could derail the broader meeting, consider having a side conversation with them prior to the group meeting.  Take the time to understand their position and then during the group meeting, paraphrase the concerns or observations on behalf of this individual and allow for continued discussion.  You will also have the opportunity to research the points they raise and bring more facts than speculation to the meeting.

Remember it is a lot easier to fix a problem before everything is set in motion, and your devil’s advocate is allowing you to do just that.