How to put a “Devil’s Advocate” mindset to work for your team

There’s usually one self-proclaimed “Devil’s Advocate” in any work team of five or more. You know the one – the person who shoots down nearly every suggestion with the idea-killing bullet “but”.

Oftentimes they are the big-picture thinkers, the ones who can immediately see the ripple effect of the suggested idea. While that’s important, a roadblock doesn’t allow for the sort of exploration that improves ideas. Unfortunately, the Devil’s Advocate too often enjoys arguing for the sake of argument, making him or herself an end-game player. Most other “team players” do not enjoy confrontation and will defer in social settings for the sake of moving on or maintaining team harmony.

Why, then, would you purposefully incorporate a Devil’s Advocate filter into your product development process? One answer is because this type of thinking can actually unblock barriers, particularly if the team is encouraged to tackle the objections head-on rather than sidestep the issues raised or abandon an idea before it’s fully explored. Now, a critical review isn’t an end-game anymore, but a game changer – turning an idea into a more practical solution.

Here’s how this process works:

  • Create two teams: Team A is weighted with the more naturally optimistic people in the group while Team B is seeded with the more skeptical people (you know who they are). Ideally, the teams would be fairly even.
  • Team A is an idea generation team. However, it is also charged with building supporting arguments or proofs for each idea suggested.
  • Team A presents its recommendations to Team B.
  • Team B reviews the recommendations with its most critical eye, trying to uncover anything about each idea that would make it unworkable.
  • Team B presents its findings to Team A, who then reworks their solutions to neutralize the problems raised by Team B.
  • This back-and-forth continues until both teams are satisfied that they have reached a direction to pursue. Ending the process without a direction is not an option.
  • The final recommendations are put in writing and submitted for final approvals or action.

A formal Devil’s Advocate process also serves a second (less obvious) purpose. It engages everyone in finding a solution, which helps bring in diverse viewpoints and considerations. Usually there are 1-3 drivers for a project with one champion who believes it is important and must be done – and that champion too often is a delegator rather than producer. When you create your solution teams, the more cross-sectional people you can draft to participate, the better the final solutions will be and the more adopters you will have from the start.

We often employ this technique without realizing it because it actually works. For example, I ask my husband to copy edit my writing before submission, knowing that he’s a very critical content reader as well as a good editor. Oftentimes I credit him with a better product, not because he rewrites a section, but because he challenges a point which he thinks I should omit or reconsider. I then review that section myself and either better explain the point or I delete it. A less stringent proof reader, or one who merely reads for grammar versus content, would not be as valuable because my end goal is to create the best product I can write for a diverse business audience.

How might this process work for you?

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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