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 used to think it was difficult to manage conflict. Now I wonder if it isn’t more difficult to manage agreement.
A conflicted organization is fairly easy to analyze. The signs are abundant. You can quickly identify the conflicting groups as well as the members of each. You can identify grievances simply by talking with people. You can figure out who is “us” and who is “them”. Solving the problem may prove challenging but, at the very least, you know two things: 1) there is a problem; 2) its general contours are easy to see.
When an organization is in agreement, on the other hand, you may not even know that a problem exists. Everything floats along smoothly. People may not quiver with enthusiasm but no one is throwing furniture or shouting obscenities. Employees work and things get done.
The problem with an organization in agreement is that many participants actually disagree. But the disagreement doesn’t bubble up and out. There are at least two scenarios in which this happens:
Similar paradoxes arise in organizations all the time. Each employee wants to be seen as a team player. They may have reservations about a decision but — because everyone else agrees or seems to agree — they keep quiet. Perhaps nobody agrees to a given project but they believe that everyone else does. Perhaps nobody wants to work on Project X. Nevertheless, Project X persists. Unlike a conflicted organization, nobody realizes that a problem exists.
The second scenario is perhaps more dangerous but less common. A fear-based culture – if left untreated – will eventually corrupt the entire organization. Employees grow afraid of telling the truth. The remedy is easy to discern but hard to execute: the organization needs to replace executive management and create a new culture.
The Abilene paradox is perhaps less dangerous but far more common. Any organization that strives to “play as a team” or “hire team players” is at risk. Employees learn to go along with the team, even if they believe the team is wrong.
What can be done to overcome the Abilene paradox in an organization? Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out that there are two parts to the problem. First, employees make inaccurate assumptions about what others believe. Second, even though they disagree, they don’t feel comfortable speaking up. A good manager can work on both sides of the problem. Kanter suggests the following:
The activities needed to ward off the Abilene paradox are not draconian. Indeed, they’re fairly easy to implement. But you can only implement them if you realize that a problem exists. That’s the hard part.