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