09 March 2006

Dealing with the Devil's Advocate

"How many times have you been in meetings where the Devil's Advocate decimated your idea or your colleague's idea?

The other big problem with the group meeting is a variant of groupthink -- when your idea is modified by the group to such an extent that it loses its entire meaning...

Coming back to the Devil's Advocate - how do we deal with him/her?"

Read more in Sast Wingees Speaketh :: Dealing with the Devil's Advocate

Update: Read the comments posted here -- an interesting thread developeth! Please share your thoughts.

Keep in touch! Sign up to get updates and occasional emails from me.


Riaz said...

I remember whooping loudly (well not actually the word "whoop" more Yeahhhoohyeahhing... but that isn't a word - YET) when I heard about Tom Kelly talk about banishing the devils advocate. I've fought for many years against that kind of mentality. Especially dealing with certain superiors that felt the only way to get their point across was to demolish everyone else’s.

Revisiting the idea now is seems the devils advocate or the 'Socratic method' seems to be rather strong role played a lot of professional communication. The thing I always try to remember is breaking things is always a lot harder than building anything.

Lately I've been trying the method of co creation to bring the devils advocates into the creative process. It's kind of a 'hug your fears' approach to dealing with it… and takes a more than a little graciousness… but if you can get people to work together, try to solve the same goals… they begin to understand the actual goals. The problem is sometimes no matter what you do people will have different opinions. Picking your battles is certainly another thing I’ve learned over the years.

Another method is to use the power of three. Three people are always going to be able to move a lot faster in making decisions than just two. Two can face each other off for a while but with three or an odd number you always get someone to break a tie. Three is a tripod. Always in balance.

I think what worries me more now than the devils advocate is its sinister evil half brother 'the Silent Dissenter'. The person who won't let you know they disagree and never voice their concerns (or not very loudly). I still don’t know how to deal with them.

Mark Schraad said...

Over the last two years, while in design grad school, I have read mountains of dialog, dissertations and commentary about the collaborative process 'inherent' in design. While a group of designers collaborating in the divergent phase of the project is faster, brings a more expansive range of ideas, and exponentially adds to the mixing bowl, cross pollination, and the refinement of ideas, at some point a singular vision is necessary.

While not a fan of rigid stage gate processes, there is absolutely a point when divergence must contained and convergence mandated. The theoretical world of academia, or the ivory towers of Gehry may allow for unlimited exploration, but the rest of us have time lines, budgets and managerial responsibilities that require deliverables.

Clear planning of process specific to the problem (or project), and managerial responsibility requires a phase wherein the team must attempt to break the prevalent theory. That is absolutely not in the divergent phases (such as brainstorming). But practicality must be a part of the process.

And as nice and cooperative as I like life to be, in order for this to work, the group must often endure passionate and heated debate. Don't kill the 'devil's advocate,' just time their entrance and participation carefully.

dave said...

This is an interesting comment thread.

I am torn -- I love collaboration and teamwork but also agree that sometimes a singular vision is necessary.

One of the nice things about design -- and much work that falls into the "knowledge work" category -- is that it doesn't cost that much to start your own business.

So if you really feel strongly about a concept or idea it is possible to strike out on your own and form a new group.

I speak from experience here; the reason I started XPLANE was that I could not find a company that was doing some things that I felt strongly needed doing.

At the same time, an individual can do creative work but an individual vision has to be shared in order to make a true organization, which is where I feel teamwork comes in.

I am a BIG fan of heated debate -- tough critique is a tradition in most art schools, and anyone who has been through a rigorous art or design program knows what I mean by that.

When it comes to Devil's advocates I feel you can respect the conservative position without being constrained by it.

I have a habit of asking the Devil's advocate to put on a creative hat by pointing them toward the goal; that is,

"The world isn't perfect but we still need to make progress. You can point out problems -- and that can be helpful -- but it's really not that interesting or constructive unless you have a solution in mind."

This seems to work pretty well.

Daniel Seguin said...

I love the conversation... I'll jump in as there are a few pieces I've like to pick-up on.

As I read through the thread, I was asking myself where I stood on the subject: does the devil’s advocate have a place in the room or not?

To me the devils’ advocates out there play an important group role, that of testing feasibility (of ideas, process, concepts, etc.). But as I thought of this a little more, I kept coming back to the same base question, what’s the intent behind their behaviour? Are they trying to help resolve a problem, and are thus seeking to better understand OR are they attempting to highjack/derail the process with a personal/hidden agenda in mind? In other words, I think there’s a place for that individual, but the ultimate intent, in my opinion, should be in service of the group, i.e. striving towards the established vision.

…which brings me to the other pieces I wanted to pick-up on and that is the notion of singular vision vs. shared vision, and the related. I for one agree that vision at the top is important, that’s one of the major reasons Gehry’s design firms really works well. He’s the one at the top who’s established the culture of creativity in the organization. Another piece that Gehry does really well and speaks to Mark’s comment about “practicality” is that he also see “managing” as “designing” (he’s actually written a great chapter on this in “Managing as Designing”). Therefore, his organizational structure, decision-making processes, responsibility/controls, and processes are all in alignment (well mostly in alignment ;)) to best support his people doing the work he wants them to do. My point here is that too often in organizations the contextual (pragmatic & practical) aspects are ignored or missed, thus not allowing for an alignment between what we espouse to do (be creative and innovative, play a variety or roles, etc.) and what we practically have to do (write reports, do billing, etc). What ensues are a bunch of “weird people behaviours, attitudes, and emotions”, such as the infamous devils’ advocates.

Though I believe there’s a place for these types of roles, it’s their intent with which we should be curious…

(...again great blog Mark. Great choice of topics to get the blood going in the moring!)

Daniel Seguin said...

(Heh, those early morning comments...)

Clarification: When I wrote "Cheers!
(...again great blog Mark. Great choice of topics to get the blood going in the moring!)"

I really meant Dave and not Mark. Sorry 'bout that DAVE!

dave said...

No problem Daniel, I knew what you meant :)


HarryC said...

In stage improvisation, it is crucial that the creative processes flow unabated within the group. That's why improvisers train in "yes and," rather than "yes but," or the worst: "not."

When a scene is in the process of being created, endless possibilities remain as long as everyone keeps adding to it. As soon as a player denies or negates, everything comes to a crashing halt.

For the group to achieve the most, everyone must add to the scene.

It's the same in any group collaboration when the group is striving to be creative. Everyone must add and everyone must accept what is added. There's no room for devil's advocates in that process.

On the other hand, if your group's job is to pick something apart and find its every flaw, bring on the devil's advocates.

Both groups are necessary. However, the creative is the most valuable and hardest to achieve.