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.


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