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 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?
Assume, for a moment, that I’m your manager. I call you into my office one day and say, “You’re doing pretty good work … but you’re going to have to get better at shooting free throws on the basketball court. If you want a promotion this year, you’ll need to make at least 75% of your free throws.”
What would you do? Assuming that you don’t resign on the spot, you would probably get a basketball, go to the free throw line, and start practicing free throws (also known as foul shots). Like most skills, you would probably find that your accuracy improves with practice. You might also hire a coach or watch some training videos, but the bottom line is practice, practice, practice.
Now, let’s change the scenario. I call you into my office and say, “You’re doing pretty good work … but you’re going to have to get better at creating ideas. If you want a promotion this year, you’ll need to increased the number of good ideas you generate by at least 75%.”
Now what? Well … I’d suggest that you start practicing the art of creating good ideas. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s not very different from practicing the art of shooting free throws.
But shooting free throws and creating ideas seem to be very different processes. Here’s how they feel:
The two activities seem very different but, actually, they’re not. In both cases, you’re doing the work. With free throws, you readily recognize what you’re doing. With ideas, you don’t. Free throws happen in your conscious mind, also known as System 2. New ideas, on the other hand, happen below the level of consciousness, in System 1. When System 1 works up an idea, it pops it into System 2 and you become aware of it.
We understand how to practice something in System 2 – we’re aware of our activity. But how do we practice in System 1? How can we practice something that we’re not aware of?
We think of our mind as controlling our body. But, as Amy Cuddy has pointed out, our bodily activities also influence our mental states. If we make ourselves big, we grow more confident. If we smile, our mood brightens.
So how do we use our bodies to teach our brains to have good ideas? First, we need to observe ourselves. What were you doing the last time you had a good idea? I’ve noticed that most of my good ideas pop into my head when I’m out for a walk. When I’m stuck on a difficult problem, I recognize that I need a good idea. I quit what I’m doing and go for a walk. Oftentimes, it works – my System 1 generates an idea and pops it into System 2.
In my critical thinking classes, I ask my students to raise their hands if they have ever in their lives had a good idea. All hands go up. Everybody has the ability to create good ideas. The question is practice.
Then I ask my students what they were doing the last time they had a good idea. The list includes: out for a walk, driving, riding in a car, bus, or train (but not an airplane), taking a shower, drifting off to sleep, and bicycling.
I also ask them what activities don’t generate good ideas. The list includes: when they’re stressed, highly focused, multitasking, overly tired, overly busy, or sitting in meetings.
So how do we practice the art of having good ideas? By doing more of those activities that generate good ideas (and fewer of those that don’t). The most productive activities – like walking – seem to occupy part of our attention while leaving much of our brainpower free to wander somewhat aimlessly. Our bodily activity influences and stimulates our System 1. The result is often a good idea.
Is that perfectly clear? Good. I’m going for a walk.
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