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3 Key Design Factors For An Effective Devil's Advocate

Apr 23 2014, 2:25pm CDT | by

Any organization that aspires to innovate but has not embraced an explicit Devil’s Advocate process should read Megan McArdle’s recent Opening Remarks column at BusinessWeek on Why Negativity is...

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12 weeks ago

3 Key Design Factors For An Effective Devil's Advocate

Apr 23 2014, 2:25pm CDT | by

Any organization that aspires to innovate but has not embraced an explicit Devil’s Advocate process should read Megan McArdle’s recent Opening Remarks column at BusinessWeek on Why Negativity is Really Awesome .

McArdle tells about a series of high profile disasters where reputations, jobs and even lives were needlessly lost. These include recent state and Federal health insurance exchange failures, several 60 Minutes stories that went awry and the NASA Challenger explosion. In every case, internal voices had raised red flags that, if addressed, might have averted the disaster in question. But management ignored or shot the messenger rather than heed the message.

Our research into thousands of innovation efforts finds that having a devil’s advocate that is responsible for raising tough questions in a constructive way is critical for success. Every company attempting to innovate needs some version of a devil’s advocate—both to head off problems and to bring out the best efforts of the organization. Making it work, however, is tricky. The devil’s advocate is, if you will, in the details. We’ve found that there are three keys to success.

1. You have to commit to an explicit process rather than hope that tough questions will spontaneously emerge. And you need to do so at the beginning. Everyone has to agree on when a devil’s advocate will be involved, whether insiders or outsiders will play the role, and how the role will play out. If you wait until you’re in the heat of a moment, when a critical decision is being made on a real, live innovation program, everyone will have chosen sides. Those who want the idea to proceed will resist a devil’s advocate, for fear it will slow or kill the project. Those who oppose the idea will insist on a devil’s advocate. Both sides will try to tilt the playing field in their favor. The only way to get everyone on board is to set the rules before anyone knows whether they’re for or against a particular project. The processes have to be specified in detail, too. As things stand, many companies like the theory of devil’s advocacy but never implement it.

2. The goal of devil’s advocacy must be framed correctly. It can’t be about killing projects or even identifying flaws. Otherwise, the process becomes a game of gotcha. Some people will win, but others will lose. The process will generate so much tension that people will shy away from it. Instead, the devil’s advocate needs to be about reducing uncertainty, about learning—even if information that is unearthed discredits the idea. The devil’s advocate helps bring to the surface issues that might otherwise be ignored. It ensures that issues, once raised, are addressed and not just glossed over as a project gains momentum. Everyone can get behind those goals.

3. The devil’s advocate needs to function constructively throughout the innovation process rather than be an inquisition at the end. It makes sense, for instance, to assign a well-respected person or group to the role to make sure that early projections for potentially disruptive technologies go well into the future and are appropriately aggressive, rather than just being snapshots of where things stand today. It makes sense to have a devil’s advocate challenge whether you’ve actually laid out truly innovative scenarios or are just considering incremental scenarios that obscure both problems and opportunities. It can be especially important to have a devil’s advocate involved in the earliest communications and consensus building efforts. It would help to avoid the tendency is to gloss over potential objections to a new strategy. It would also help to highlight cultural problems that might, in the end, torpedo the innovation. Having a devil’s advocate involved throughout the process helps to get everyone on the same page.

An effective devil’s advocate frames the most important questions that need to be answered before a disruptive innovation is attempted at scale. The advocate also guides the process, making sure that the right amount of uncertainty is reduced at each step. It would obviously be unfair to demand great precision and certainty about an idea at the earliest stage. After all, if an innovation effort might yield a true killer app, it is necessarily moving into new territory—where certainty doesn’t yet exist. But, at each new step, greater precision should be demanded, and, by launch stage, you want confidence before you commit a bunch of money and put your reputation on the line.

Here’s an added benefit of embracing a devil’s advocate: At each step, the management team, working with the devil’s advocate, preserves the possibility of what one client calls a “graceful exit.”

Only a small percentage of the ideas put forward as possible killer apps should make it to market, and it’s important to be able to stop them at the right time. People get attached to their projects, and corporations tend to treat the end of a project as a failure that tars participants, so extra effort needs to go into preserving an out. By focusing on reducing uncertainty, the devil’s advocate provides an easy way to set aside projects—rather than declare them dead—until the right level of confidence is reached.

* * *

Chunka Mui is coauthor, with Paul B. Carroll, of The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups .

 
Update
10

6 weeks ago

RM47mil KWSG contributions still unclaimed

Jun 9 2014 7:54am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

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KUALA LUMPUR: About RM47 million of contributions in the Teachers Provident Fund (KWSG) still remain unclaimed, the Dewan Rakyat was told ...
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Update
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6 weeks ago

Gold shop lost almost RM1mil

Jun 9 2014 3:50am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

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KANGAR: A gold shop owner lost almost RM1 million after after the safe on in his shop was broken i ...
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Update
8

6 weeks ago

Motion to debate MAS losses in Dewan Rakyat rejected

Jun 9 2014 3:39am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

Federal Aviation Administration Bans All US Flights To Israel
KUALA LUMPUR: AN emergency motion to debate the losses incurred by Malaysia Airlines last year, amounting to RM1.2 billion was rejected by the Dewan Rakyat to ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
7

6 weeks ago

MH370 Tragedy: Hisham: RM27.6 mil spent on 1st phase of SAR

Jun 9 2014 2:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia spent some RM27.6 million in its first phase of the search operations for missing Malaysia Airline flight MH370, said Acting Transport Minister, Datuk Seri ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
6

6 weeks ago

9.1m litres of diesel seized in a month

Jun 8 2014 1:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

INDIA-CHINA-DIPLOMACY-TRADE
PUTRAJAYA: The Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism ministry has seized some 9.1 million litres of diesel and property worth RM58 million since mounting ‘Operasi Diesel Selatan’ ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
5

6 weeks ago

Girl, 9, awarded RM2.78m compensation for medical negligence

Jun 6 2014 4:56am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

Government Weekly Cabinet Meeting
KUALA LUMPUR: A nine-year-old girl who suffered brain damage during her birth at a government hospital was awarded over RM2.78 millio ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
4

6 weeks ago

Malaysia's total trade in April up 12pc

Jun 5 2014 11:52pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's total trade in April 2014 rose by 12 per cent from a year ago to RM123.86 billion due to growing trading activities, International Trade and Industry Minister Dat ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
3

6 weeks ago

Works Ministry to spend RM20m for upgrading works at 50 accident black spots

Jun 4 2014 11:35pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

Iskandar Johor Open - Previews
JOHOR BARU: The Works Ministry will implement upgrading works at 50 accident prone locations in the country that have been identified this year involving a ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
2

6 weeks ago

Najib launches loan scheme for Ramadan traders

Jun 4 2014 10:24pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

EurAsia Cup presented by DRB-HICOM - Day One
PUTRAJAYA: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak today launches RM45 million Ramadan Bazaar Sche ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
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1

7 weeks ago

Residents bring up objection against Kidex to Suhakam

Jun 4 2014 4:49am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PETALING JAYA: A group of 20 Petaling Jaya residents held a meeting with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) over their objection against the proposed RM2.2 billion Kinrara Damansara Skyway (Kidex) today ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 

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