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corporate culture and innovation

Decision Theater

And what does the devil’s advocate have to say?

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:

  • Only a small number of people play the devil’s advocate (DA) role. They do it voluntarily and they get little or no support in terms of resources or even encouragement. Each time we had a meeting about a big decision, the same people  spoke up to say, “Well … let me be a devil’s advocate here …” I admired these people but I also wondered, Why do so few people step forward in this role? How could the company promote this role as a regular part of the decision process?
  • In these meetings, the devil’s advocate’s objections were always “handled”. In other words, the leader of the meeting (often the CEO) would thank the devil’s advocate for the input and then give a breezy statement that effectively dismissed the input.  We all felt better because we had “considered” the other side. But had we really?
  • Prior to the meeting, the devil’s advocate had very few resources to develop a coherent position. The DA didn’t have any staff to gather information or budget to hire consultants, etc. The DA’s position might be very thoughtful .. but it wasn’t well developed with evidence to back it up. It could easily be dismissed.
  • This is what I call “decision theater.” We believe we’re contributing to a good decision process, but we’re really just acting out roles.

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.

Let’s Get Digical

I’m becoming a digical life form. Here’s the evidence:

  • I wear an electronic bracelet that keeps track of all the calories I burn. It even beeps to remind me when I sit still for too long.
  • An app on my smartphone keeps track of the calories I consume. In theory, I should be able to keep my calories-in lower than my calories-out.
  • We were in Berlin recently and were very impressed – but somewhat confused – by the extensive public transportation system. The solution? A digital mapping app on my smartphone. We could get from anywhere to anywhere quickly and easily (and drink beer along the way).
  • My smartphone also controls my new digital hearing aids. Among other things, I can program my earbuds to a given location, like a conference room. Whenever I return to that conference room, my smartphone senses where I am and sets the parameters automatically. In some cases, I can hear better than my colleagues with “normal” hearing.
  • All of the devices I use today are external. If I live for another 20 years or so, I’m sure that some of the devices will be implanted in my body.

Digical is a blend of the physical and the digital. I think of it as adding digital extensions to humans (or other animals). But Bain & Company actually coined the term (in a recent white paper) and they think of it as business, not biology.

Let's get digical.

Let’s get digical.

In Bain’s usage, digical refers to the merger of a company’s physical and online operations. When e-commerce took off back in the 90s, some wild-eyed analysts predicted that it would spell the end of brick-and-mortar stores. As Bain (and many others) have pointed out, nothing could be farther from the truth.

As we all know (but sometimes forget) humans are social animals. We like to be around other people. We generally thrive in society and wither in isolation. (It’s why tall buildings make you crazy). For this very reason, Bain suggests that the future of retailing will be the digical world. Retailers will increasingly merge physical stores and online operations into “omnichannel” solutions.

Other industries – especially entertainment and technology – will go digical quickly. Even industries like construction, which might not seem like digical leaders, are getting digital tools to dig better holes and build smarter buildings. Smart tractors use GPS and a databank of seed information to help farmers plant smarter, conserve resources, and increase yields.

In reading Bain’s white paper, three things stood out for me:

  • The biggest change is yet to come – Yikes! We’ve seen a lot in the past two decades. But Bain says the near future “…will bring far more innovation to most industries than they have seen in the past.”
  • Silos are major impediments – siloed organizations will be followers at best, never leaders. Perhaps the first step to becoming digical is to break down silos and…
  • …build a cohesive culture – The Bain authors never actually use Peter Drucker’s famous quote – Culture eats strategy for breakfast – but they certainly imply it. To become digical leaders, focus on culture first.

I like the term digical; I hope it becomes the word of the year in 2014. Bain has a very clear definition and useful advice for businesses. Personally, I’d like to see the definition expanded to include biology as well as business. After all, we’re all going digical.

(Digical is a sales mark of Bain and Company).

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