Give the Devil’s Advocate His Due (a Muzzle)

Theresa Reid

By: Theresa Reid, PhD, Principal

Theresa ReidDo you have someone on your staff or board who has appointed himself (or herself – it’s an equal-opportunity position) the resident “Devil’s Advocate”?   He has adopted the role of the skeptic, the tough questioner.   Every time someone offers a new idea – an idea that might be fragile and tentative and truly innovative and full of potential – the Devil’s Advocate quickly quashes it with the well-worn phrase, “Let me play Devil’s Advocate.”  Meaning, “Let me see how many ways I can shoot this down.”

We have been taught to value the Devil’s Advocate as a brave thinker who says the hard things and saves the rest of us hapless sheep from the dangers of groupthink.  But all too often the real impact is to nip in the bud emerging ideas that could, properly nurtured, transform your organization for the better.

How do you keep the Devil’s Advocate from having a destructive impact on your organization’s innovation processes?

Tom Kelley, General Manager of the global design firm IDEO, describes 10 inquiring personas anyone in an organization can adopt to advance the constructive exploration of new, potentially revolutionary ideas.  In his priceless book, The Ten Faces of Innovation.  Kelley helpfully sorts the 10 personas into three groups:  the Learning Personas, the Organizing Personas, and the Building Personas.  In brief, Kelley’s personas are as follow:

Learning Personas

As individuals, we need to learn constantly to stay fully alive and vibrant.  The same is true for organizations.  Three different learning personas can continually refresh your thinking

The Anthropologist closely observes human behavior as if she were a Martian, enabling her to see frustrations, needs, and capabilities that are often invisible to others, including those observed.

The Experimenter continually prototypes new ideas, learning from a quick loop of effort, feedback, and revision.

The Cross-Pollinator recognizes that other businesses and cultures, even those that seem far afield, can be a great source of new ideas.  She reaps ideas from afar and sows them at home.

Organizing Personas

We all know that the best ideas do not automatically float to the top of the organizational “to-do” list.  Three personas adept at navigating decision-making processes help advance good ideas.

The Hurdler accepts that legitimate organizational concerns often create roadblocks to innovation, and moves deftly among and over them to advance a great idea.

The Collaborator knows that many different talents are required to produce the most perspicacious result, and creates and shepherds interdisciplinary teams to generate novel solutions.

The Director creates a diverse creative cast and crew and directs them to greatness with her vision.

Building Personas

Pulling together and building on the insights and capacity generated by the Learning and Organizing Personas, the Building Personas put their stamp on the organization as a whole.

The Experience Architect transforms humdrum experience into events that change our expectations and lighten our load.  Think Southwest Airlines’ hilarity, Coldstone Creamery’s fast-moving paddles, the pager that lets you stroll nearby until your table is available.

The Set Designer knows that the shapes, scents, light, space, equipment, color, and other characteristics of spaces can nurture or hinder emotional well-being and creativity, and makes sure environments are supportive.

The Caregiver anticipates clients’ needs – physical, emotional, psychological – and provides consistent care accordingly.

The Storyteller inspires action and by crafting and delivering compelling true stories that speak to stakeholders’ deepest values.

An organization steeped in the practices of these personas can counter the negativity of the Devil’s Advocate with more constructive propositions.  Before “Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a minute” smothers the next great new idea, a colleague can pipe in with, “Actually, let me play the Anthropologist for a minute.  I’ve been noticing persistent discomfort in our clients around this issue,” or, “Let’s think like an Experimenter for a moment, and try a quick-and-dirty prototype of this idea to get more information.”

Kelley writes, “The Devil’s Advocate may never go away, but on a good day, the ten personas can keep him in his place.  Or tell him to go to hell.”

I love Tom Kelley’s book!  Here’s a quick overview – excerpted by Kelley from his book – of the ten personas.  This in itself is enlightening, but his book is a master class.  I hope you’ll let me know what you think and how you use Kelley’s insights.

Theresa, one of our newest consultants,  has worked in board,  staff leadership and consulting positions in the nonprofit sector for 30 years, and is a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer.  Dr. Reid brings expertise in strategic planning, organizational development, board leadership development, strategic communications, CEO coaching, and program design to her work with NEW clients.  Dr. Reid is the author of Two Little Girls:  A Memoir of Adoption, published in 2006 by the Penguin Group.  See more of Theresa’s work here.