In major corporate decisions, a devil’s advocate can serve an invaluable function. The advocate can help stress test an idea and point out cognitive biases that others might miss. The big idea is put on trial. Executives who proposed the idea serve as defense attorneys. The devil’s advocate is essentially the prosecutor. She looks for weaknesses in the other side’s case and serves up an alternative narrative. She also helps the team protect against the down side. The advocate helps us make the decision right — using a balanced process that tends to dampen major biases.
All too often, however, the process devolves into “decision theater”. We’re just playing roles that don’t improve the decision process but do make us feel better about it. Here’s how I’ve seen it play out in various software companies:
I certainly respect people who play the devil’s advocate role. To make this more than theater however, organizations need to change the process. How? Well, let’s look at the history of the devil’s advocate.
The Catholic church originated the role of the devil’s advocate in 1587. The advocate plays a key role in the process of canonization — determining whether a person should be declared a saint. The process includes a trial, with one side arguing that the person does indeed deserve sainthood. The other side — led by the devil’s advocate — argues the opposite. The devil’s advocate aims to poke holes in the other side’s argument, For instance, the advocate might claim that the miracles attributed to the person were actually frauds.
From my perspective, the most important element was that the church gave the advocate resources and respect to fulfill the role effectively. The devil’s advocate had resources — time, money, staff — to call on. This differs greatly from devil’s advocates in today’s corporate world, who may speak up but are not institutionally supported. A corporation that wants to debias its decision processes should do what the Catholic church did — institutionalize the role and provide enough support to make it serious.
Can you use a slide rule? The ability to use one effectively could become an important status symbol in the future.
That’s just one idea that I plucked (with a little extrapolation) from Foresight, the biennial scan-the-horizon publication from Singapore’ s Center for Strategic Futures (CSF). Singapore, of course., is a very small country buffeted by giants. CSF describes the country as a “price-taker” – it must accept prices set by other market players.
So how will Singapore survive? That’s the basic question that CSF aims to answer in a series of symposia, structured thought processes, debates, stories, suggestions, conferences, nudges, and “sandboxes”. The idea is to keep ideas about the future top of mind among Singaporean leaders. As CSF says, “Nobody can predict the future, but we can be less surprised by it.”
Since 2012, CSF has published a Foresight document every other year. (Click here for the complete collection). The 2019 edition was published on July 1 and makes for fascinating reading.
CSF uses a structured process based on scenario planning to scan the horizon and create ideas about the future. (For some background on scenario planning, click here, here, and here). CSF calls its approach Scenario Planning Plus, which “retains Scenario Planning as its core, but taps on a broader suite of tools more suitable for the analysis of weak signals, and thinking about black swans and wild cards.” Scenario Planning Plus has six key purposes:
I encourage you to read through the Foresight document and to print out the Driving Force Cards to use in your planning sessions. They’ll stimulate your thinking in both practical and unexpected ways. To give you a sense of what the Foresight document contains, here are some ideas that I found especially interesting:
And why might using a slide rule become a status symbol? When everything goes digital, being able to use analog devices could become a mark of distinction. We already see audiophiles abandoning digital recordings and returning to analog wax discs. Why not slide rules, too?
I tell my management students that executives should focus on one task above all others: developing a positive, supportive corporate culture. When a company has a positive culture, all things are possible. When a company has a negative culture, very few positive outcomes occur.
The problem, of course, is how to assess a culture. How does one know if a culture is positive or negative? It’s perhaps the most important question an executive (or job applicant) can ask. But the answer is murky at best. Further, how can one tell if a culture is getting better or worse? Is the company living up to its professed values? How does one know?
A new company called CultureX may help us solve the problem. Formed in conjunction with MIT’s Sloan School of Management, CultureX uses the millions of employee reviews on Glassdoor to analyze corporate cultures. Along the way, CultureX identifies the most frequent values companies profess, the norms used to promote those values, and how employees view company performance in fulfilling the values.
CultureX uses a range of textual analysis tools to analyze free-form employee comments in Glassdoor reviews. The result is a composite view of what it’s like to work in an organization – from employees’ perspective. As you might expect, employee reviews often highlight what the company actually values as opposed to what it professes to value.
CultureX initially applied its methodology to analyze 1.2 million Glassdoor reviews for some 500 companies. The average Culture 500 company has over 2,000 employee reviews. The analysis identified some 60 “… distinct values that companies listed in their corporate values statements.” From the 60, CultureX researchers winnowed the list down to the Big Nine that were cited most frequently. These are: agility, collaboration, customer, diversity, execution, innovation, integrity, performance, and respect.
CultureX researchers then built an interactive tool which “… provides users a snapshot of how frequently and positively employees … speak about each of the Big Nine values.” Users can see how employees discuss each of the Big Nine – even those that a company doesn’t include in its own values statements.
CultureX uses Amazon as an example of how the tool might be used. Amazon’s employee reviews, for instance, spoke frequently and positively about two specific values: innovation and customer centricity. (Innovation was about two standard deviations above the mean; customer centricity was about one standard deviation above). On the other hand, employees were “much less enthusiastic” about the company’s respect for employees – about 1.5 standard deviations below the mean.
How might one use these data? An Amazon executive might be concerned that employees don’t feel respected. The executive might develop programs to improve the company’s performance. (I’m sure that consultants from CultureX would have some suggestions). The executive could then use changes over time in the “respect” value to monitor progress (or lack of it). Similarly, an executive might compare her own company to any number of other companies – in the same industry or in others – to identify competitive gaps and/or advantages.
But the data are not reserved solely for executives. Want to work for a company that is truly innovative? The CultureX data can help you identify which companies are walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Potential employees can identify companies that match their value set. Companies can identify potential employees whose values match the company’s. With better information, both sides stand to benefit.
CultureX’s work should help us focus more attention on the role of corporate culture in business success. The data set could become a useful platform for investors, executives, employees, and job applicants. So … how’s your company doing?
Let’s say that Suellen and I have an argument and I notice that all the verbs are in the past tense. According to Aristotle, the verbs tell us that the argument is about blame. I may think it’s about who left the door unlocked or forgot to pay the mortgage. But it’s really about blame.
Let’s also say that I win that argument. (This is very hypothetical). I’ve successfully pushed the blame away from myself and on to her. It’s not easy to win an argument, so I do a little victory dance. Meanwhile, how does Suellen feel? Probably a mixture of emotions – irritation, annoyance, anger, … perhaps even a desire to get even. Suellen is the woman I love. Why on earth would I want her to feel like that? That’s the problem with arguing in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.
Arguing in the past tense is generally known as forensic rhetoric. In many legal situations, we do want to lay blame. We want to establish guilt and make sure that the appropriate person is appropriately punished. Most of the testimony in a trial is in the past tense. Similarly, characters in crime dramas speak almost exclusively in the past tense. The goal is to lay blame and Aristotle and others give us rules for how to argue the point.
Outside of the courtroom, however, arguing in the past tense is essentially useless. We can’t do anything about the past. We can’t change it. We can’t enhance it. We can lay blame but, even then, we will argue endlessly about whether we got it right or not. Did we blame the right person? If so, did we blame them for the right reasons? Did we learn the right lessons? Did history teach us anything? Or did it teach us nothing?
The next time you’re in an argument, notice the verbs. If they’re in the past tense, you’re simply trying to blame the other person. Does it do any good to “win” such an argument? Nope. By “winning”, you just give the other side motivation to come back stronger next time. This is how feuds get started. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, had it right: “Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness.”
As a marketing executive, I’m accustomed to the process of segmenting markets. My software companies divided markets by company size, SIC code, geography, and installed software. By doing so, we could identify and communicate with companies that were most likely to buy our products and services.
The Pew Research Center has done something similar with America’s body politic. Rather than two major political parties, Pew identifies eight different clusters of political thought and action: four for the Left and four for the Right. Let’s take a look at each. (Click here for the complete report and here for a Q&A on the methodology).
Core Conservatives support traditional Republican positions including smaller government and lower taxes. They also believe that the nation’s economic system is fundamentally fair. Core Conservatives generally support globalization, believing that the global economy creates opportunities for American businesses. This segment accounts for approximately 31% of all Republicans and roughly 13% of the American body politic.
Country First Conservatives are deeply concerned about immigration and generally believe that America should withdraw from the world. They strongly believe that the global economy is deeply threatening to American interests. More than any other segment, Country First Conservatives agree with the statement “If America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.” This segment accounts for 14% of Republicans and 6% of the American public.
Market Skeptic Republicans share many conservative values but are losing faith in the American economic system. They believe the economy unfairly favors powerful interests and are skeptical of banks and other financial institutions. More than any other group, the disagree with the statement “The U.S. economic system is generally fair to most Americans.” This segment accounts for 22% of Republicans and roughly 12% percent of the American public.
New Era Enterprisers form the most optimistic segment of either the Right or the Left. More than any other group they believe that the next generation of Americans will be better off than the current generation. New Era Enterprisers strongly support business and generally believe that immigrants strengthen the country. This segment makes up 17% of Republicans and 11% of the general public.
Adding it up (with some rounding errors), the four Conservative segments account for approximately 42% of the American body politic.
Solid Liberals have liberal attitudes across the board. They overwhelmingly support government involvement in health insurance and government activism to ensure that blacks have equal rights with whites. They support government regulation of business and don’t believe one needs to be religious to be moral. Solid Liberals account for 16% of the general public 33% of Democrats.
Opportunity Democrats agree on many policy issues with Solid Liberals. They’re more likely, however, to be pro-business and to believe that most people can get ahead if they work hard. They comprise 12% of the general public and roughly 20% of Democrats.
Disaffected Democrats are positive about the Democratic Party but cynical about government in general. This is one of two minority-majority segments. They support activist government programs and believe that we should focus less on problems abroad and more on domestic issues. Disaffected Democrats account for 14% of the general public and 23% of Democrats.
Devout and Diverse is the second minority-majority segment. Like Disaffected Democrats, they face financial hardships. Among all the groups, this segment is the least politically engaged. They resist government regulation and strongly believe that one needs to believe in God to be moral. The Devout and Diverse account for 9% of the public and 11% of Democrats.
Adding it up, the four Liberal segments account for roughly 51% of the American body politic.
So if Conservatives account for 42% and Liberals for 51% of the general public, where are the rest of our voters? According to Pew, roughly 8% of the general public are Bystanders, described as a “relatively young, largely minority group” that is “missing in action politically”.
So where do you stand? Thanks to the Pew Research Center, you can now find out. Pew has published the Political Typology Quiz. Click here, answer a series of questions, and you can figure out which group most closely represents your worldview. I’ll be writing more about this in the future. You may want to know which group you’re in to follow along.