The Devil’s Advocate is a centuries old technique for improving group decisions, elegant in its simplicity, widely used… and doesn’t work.
Remember Groupthink? The term was first coined in the early 1970’s describing the tendency for teams of close-knit teams to stick together on a poor option. Perhaps everyone’s background is too similar or our desire for consensus stifles asking the hard questions. Often external threats or recent failures cause us to band together and avoid conflict. In the end, using a team did not improve the quality of the decision.
For decades now, the popular antidote to Groupthink is the Devil’s Advocate: assign one member to take the contrary position during meetings. The Devil’s Advocate, however, is a four hundred year old quality control ‘best practice’ used by the Catholic Church when bestowing sainthood.
More Harm Than Good
Several behavioral studies tested the Devil’s Advocate technique and, surprisingly, found that it usually fails to improve decision quality. Using the technique can, in fact, make the situation worse!
By randomly assigning a Devil’s Advocate, we haven’t truly changed anything. The research revealed that ‘the devil’ still prefers the solution under scrutiny and remains in the grip of the Groupthink dynamics (e.g. desire for consensus). They may raise some good issues, but abandon their challenges too quickly. Now a team will mistakenly believe this ‘best practice has thoroughly vetted their decision and charge ahead with unfounded confidence.
The Devil You Want
In contrast to picking our Devil’s Advocate using ““Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe”, the team needs a genuine skeptic on board. Almost every organization has a “Dr. No” who is an eternal pessimist. Unfortunately, while an improvement over random assignments, teams grow deaf to a person’s unending negativism. The ideal Devil’s Advocate, as supported by the research, genuinely has the team’s best interests at heart but does not have any stake in the path they ultimately take. An effective Devil’s Advocate is also skilled at disrupting pre-mature confidence and provoking teams to fully explore all reasonable alternatives and the benefits and risks of each.
Many organizations have seized upon this model and intentionally developed expert Devil’s Advocates (or identify outsiders they can call upon) to join project teams and facilitate better decisions when the stakes are high. In the end, the quality of their decisions and performance rise markedly.