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.