The Debunked Devil

Nothing, but NOTHING, replaces genuine dissent.

Devil's Halo
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is in the news and commentators are abuzz with speculation on who will be his successor. Also elbowing for air time is a parade of church experts describing the centuries-old traditions for selecting that successor.

While much of the selection process remains untouched, one element was dropped exactly three decades ago. Strangely, we still use it in business decisions today… foolishly I might add.

I’m referring to the Devil’s Advocate. You have likely been involved in deliberations where, close to the conclusion, someone says: “We should have a Devil’s Advocate.”  The thinking is that assigning one or more people to argue against the team’s conclusion is an effective stress test that produces better decisions.

Primed for Failure
It sounds good, but it’s wrong. Not only wrong, but as explained in The Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing, a Devil’s Advocate does more harm than good. Research proves that Devil’s Advocates quickly ratchet back their challenges and go virtually mute if the original conclusion may actually be in danger of reversal. Said another way, the Devil’s Advocate retreats on the eve of success.

Why? Because artificial opposition doesn’t genuinely want to succeed.

It may be that I don’t want to fracture the current consensus of the team. It may be that I am unconsciously being swayed by personal benefits from the proposal on the table. This is not an issue of experience, intelligence, or integrity. In fact, the smarter and more successful I am, the more susceptible I am to these effects!

The harmful impact is the false sense that we have subjected our decision to genuine scrutiny. We believe we improved our decision quality when, in fact, we are now worse off due to over-confidence from this sham exercise.

Leadership Courage & Discipline
The most disciplined leaders have the courage to intentionally install effective dissent, either:

  • Internal: When possible, they staff teams with individuals bringing genuinely conflicting interests and perspectives to generate authentic debate.
  • External: When no genuine conflicting interests reside internally, the truly dedicated leader  invests in genuine dissent. You may recall (or see here) that Warren Buffet wants at least one acquisition advisor whose fee goes UP if the deal FAILS to go through (necessary because all traditional advisors usually benefit from the deal).

The Catholic Church ditched this practice thirty years ago.  Are you still clinging to it?

© 2013 Verax Point

About Dave Wittenberg

I am all about equipping business teams to enjoy greater payoffs on their biggest bets. I bring a unique combination of evaluation expertise and behavioral insights developed over the course of more than 300 major strategic initiatives. Applying a highly effective, disciplined framework, teams unleash their full capabilities to generate better solutions, wring out hidden waste, and deliver superior returns. Specialties: Investment Evaluation, Decision Excellence, Strategic Analysis, Mergers and Acquisitions, Investor Relations, Leadership Development, Education & Training
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