When to Invite the Devil to your Meetings

In _Home, Leadership Practice by Shaun Hall2 Comments

“I like to play the devil’s advocate.” Does this phrase sound familiar? I’ve heard this phrase so many times that I now cringe just talking about it. Once I became a vision setter and a strategic planner, this phrase started recurring meeting after meeting, and frankly, it is a much larger problem than most realize.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, playing Devil’s Advocate is an American idiom meaning the following:

In other words, it is a method of counter arguing an idea. Now before I go on, I want to be clear, I agree that the Devil’s Advocate role is necessary for the creative process; I just think people may not realize the unintended consequence of letting it loose unchecked.

The joy one apparently feels by playing Devil’s Advocate may be misplaced, especially when they see the truth about what it is that they are doing. Here are two real outcomes if you do not govern the creative process:

It’s a Demotivator – If you have someone who is continually Playing Devil’s Advocate, you end up with scenarios in which people lose interest in generating more ideas. Why would I want to throw anything else out to the table when it just gets, for lack of a better term, poo-pooed each time? As a leader, it is important to watch for this behavior because it is probably resulting in a waste of time, energy, and morale.

It’s a Show Stopper – When the Devil’s Advocate comes out too early, an idea is at risk of being shut down before it fully forms. Ideas are fragile things, and when they get tossed out to a group for the first time, they typically are not entirely built. It takes several iterations to fine tune an idea, and this thought and time make it a true innovation. However, when someone comes in on an early iteration with the typical Devil’s Advocate input, the idea may never reach the maturity and that spark of creativity and excitement may fade from the meeting.

Why are people so eager to play it?

People like playing Devil’s Advocate probably for the same reason they like blinking. It takes almost no effort or skill, but it feels good. People are naturally inclined to find what could go wrong. It’s a mechanism we all poses to protect ourselves from the unknown. Understanding risk is vital to our survival – both in an out of the workplace.

However, try thinking of the innovators throughout history. Does “Playing Devil’s Advocate” show up anywhere on their description of skills? The real skill is the ability to generate an idea, or even better, build on someone else’s idea. Not tear it down.

Wrap up

My goal here was to share the point of view from the other side of the argument. It often seems that both the person playing Devil’s Advocate and the leader allowing it to happen are blind to these realities/consequences. I am in no way suggesting that the role should not be played. In fact, if you are interested in learning how to approach the role appropriately, I found a pretty good article here.

I have seen it time and time again – great ideas fall flat due to someone speaking negatively too early. It is the responsibility of the leader to make sure this role gets played at the correct time in the creative process. It is important that the Devil’s Advocate role be played on purpose and certainly not because someone “likes doing it.”

I hope this give everyone something to think about. Sometimes these seemingly obvious problems are the most difficult to recognize, but as young leaders we have to watch for things that kill innovation. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below and make sure to follow me on social media for more updates. Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. I completely agree with your points above – the devil advocate’s role is easy to play, but I would add that its easy to play “wrongly”. Many people just take satisfaction (consciously or subconsciously) in sinking ideas. That is not the true intention of the devil’s advocate role. There has to be a time and place in a conversation to poke holes, test feasibility, look at intended/unintended consequences, and just check emotional response to an idea. However, as you said above if this is done in the formative part of an idea generation experience it is 100% destructive.

    One of the leaders that I have had in my life, introduced me to a book called “The Six Thinking Hats”. The book is a very quick read. It’s premise is that discussions need intentional organization, agreed upon approach, and space for the different thinking methods. The author Edward De Bono says that if people know there is going to be a time for the devil’s advocate (which is included in his Black Hat), they will be more willing to postpone their comments during the idea generation period (Green Hat). We even bought different colored hats for visual reminders during the meeting about which phase of the conversation we were in.

    I have used this principle in a number of meetings to great success. I think the structure actually is freeing when implemented well.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your input Charlie and of course i love the book recommendation. Thats an even deeper dive into all roles that should be played into the creative process and very applicable to this topic. I’ll second the recommendation!

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