Devil’s advocate or pre-mortem

Someone lent me the book The Ten Faces of Innovation that I mentioned in an earlier post. by Tom Kelley of Ideo. I've now started reading it.

What grabbed my attention immediately was the opening discussion about people who play the devil's advocate who Kelley says 'may be the biggest innovation killer in America today'. … 'every day thousands of great new ideas, concepts, and plans are nipped in the bud by devil's advocates'. He points out that these negative thinkers are 'toxic to the cause' of innovation.

Kelley's observations run counter to the view of the piece Ten Tips for Making Meetings Work by Michael H Smith he urges meeting leaders to:

Appoint a Devil's advocate. For each issue discussed, appoint and rotate the role of "devil's advocate". Many people will not speak out at meetings for fear of retribution, low group trust or just the fear of looking stupid. As a result "group think" becomes the norm and poor decisions result. By appointing a devil's advocate, you give official permission for raising differing views.

So what or who, exactly is the devil's advocate? Wikipedia explains as follows,

In common parlance, a devil's advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, just for the sake of argument. In taking such position, the individual taking on the devil's advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process. The purpose of such process is typically to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original, opposing position.

So is the role a negative one as Kelley suggests, or a positive one as Smith suggests? Of course the answer is not clear cut. The point of the role is to raise legitimate concerns about something so that they can be addressed before proceeding. That may have the result in turning people off the idea but it may not.

A different approach that has the same test function is to conduct a pre-mortem. Gary Klein tells you how to do this:

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient's death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the patient has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members' task is to generate plausible reasons for the project's failure.

A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure – especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn't mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolite. For example, in a session held at one Fortune 500-size company, an executive suggested that a billion-dollar environmental sustainability project had failed because interest waned when the CEO retired. Another pinned the failure on a dilution of the business case after a government agency revised its policies.

Next the leader asks each team member, starting with the project manager, to read one reason from his or her list; everyone states a different reason until all have been recorded. After the session is over, the project manager reviews the list, looking for ways to strengthen the plan.

I've conducted the pre-mortem exercise many times and people find it fun and useful. I've also used the role identification to surface issues but rather than using the Devil's Advocate I use a variety of roles – in the last meeting I facilitated, towards the end of the session when looking for 'next actions' I asked: What actions would a playwright take? What actions would a stage hand take? What actions would a producer take? – all theatre roles. (You wait for responses to each question before moving to the next role). The quality of the action list was much higher and more innovative than, I think, would have been produced by simply asking 'what actions do we take now'.

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