What the hell is a “devil’s advocate”?

This came in this week in class … subject was “confirmation bias” … how people naturally lock onto beliefs and only seek or notice that aligns with their going-in position.

One of the antidotes is enlisting a so-called devil’s advocate” to keep things honest.

A what?

You know, we’ve all been there …

You’re in meetings pitching an idea when some jabrone pipes in:

“Let me play the role of devil’s advocate …”

He then blasts your idea with half-baked criticisms.

As you aggressively defend your cherished idea, he backs off:

“Hey man, I’m just playing devil’s advocate”.

“Say, what? You mean your  just made up those cheap shots?”

 

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I’ve been reading books on decision making this summer.

A couple have praised the use of so-called devil’s advocates to validate ideas and arguments.

Here’s what they’re talking about …

 

First, the Wiki definition:

In common parlance, a devil’s advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further.

In taking this position, the individual taking on the devil’s advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process.

The purpose of such a process is typically to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original, opposing position.

It can also refer to someone who takes a stance that is seen as unpopular or unconventional, but is actually another way of arguing a much more conventional stance.

 

In their book Decisive, the Heath brothers put devil’s advocacy in context:

In most legal systems, disagreement is baked into the process.

Judges and juries will never find themselves in a CEO-style information bubble, since they are forced to consider two opposing points of view [presented by the prosecution and the defense].

The justice system isn’t alone in using a balanced process.

For centuries, the Catholic Church made use of a “devil’s advocate” in canonization decisions (i.e., in deciding who would be named a saint).

The devil’s advocate was known inside the church as the promotor fidei—the “promoter of the faith”— and his role was to build a case against sainthood.

John Paul II eliminated the office in 1983, ending 400 years of tradition.

Since then, tellingly, saints have been canonized at a rate about 20 times faster than in the early part of the twentieth century.

 

So, what’s the specific relevance of devil’s advocacy to business and personal decisions?

The Heath brothers say:

For high-stakes decisions, we owe ourselves a dose of skepticism.

Our typical tendency is to flee these skeptical conversations rather than embrace them, but that reflects short-term thinking.

We want to avoid the momentary discomfort of being challenged, which is understandable, but surely it’s preferable to the pain of walking blindly into a bad decision.

 

And, how to do it?

Some organizations have created formal devil’s advocate–style positions.

But, the most important lesson to learn about devil’s advocacy isn’t the need for a formal contrarian position; it’s the need to interpret criticism as a noble function.

An effective promotor fidei is not a token argumentative smarty-pants; it’s someone who deeply respects the organization and is trying to defend its values by surfacing contrary arguments in situations where skepticism is unlikely to surface naturally.

There are many ways to honor that spirit of values-based opposition.

The Pentagon has used “murder boards,” staffed with experienced officers, to try to kill ill-conceived missions.

In the era when Disney was churning out hits such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, its senior leadership team used a Gong Show format that allowed many people to pitch ideas for movies or theme-park rides — but the leaders brought the curtain down quickly on bad ideas.

In some organizations, the executive in charge might assign a few people on the executive team to prepare a case against a high-stakes proposal. That It puts the team members in the role of “protecting the organization,” and it licenses their skepticism.

Another alternative is to seek out existing dissent rather than creating it artificially. If you haven’t encountered any opposition to a decision you’re considering, chances are you haven’t looked hard enough.

Bottom Line: The self-proclaimed devil’s advocate may just be a jerk lobbing grenades with a shield of deniability … or, he may be making a good faith effort to pressure test your ideas.

Consider him well-intended and innocent until proven guilty …

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for more, see Heath, Chip & Dan,  Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Crown Publishing Group. 2013

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