We’ve all seen this. Many of us have done it ourselves. An idea comes up at a meeting and the boss says something like, “let me play the Devil’s advocate for a moment” and then proceeds to start picking at the idea. Some people, adverse to the term “Devil’s advocate” will use words like “push back”. A few will hit the idea with the subtlety of a jackhammer by saying “let’s explore that in some detail” (translation: I’m now going to disect your idea). Then they move to “how are we going to deal with…” or “what if we did that and this happens…” Of course, the newly conceived idea is not fully developed having just flashed into being by someone trying to make a contribution. The infancy of the idea makes it very easy to attack as the details are certainly not fully thought out.

The boss does his Devil’s advocating and the rest of the group gets the message: He doesn’t like the idea. The group joins in with their fault-finding expertise and the idea is asphyxiated under the “push back” pillow-over-the-face of the one who originally gave the idea its first breath. Twitch. Dead. (Pretty good metaphor)
It’s smart to look at the consequences of trying new things. It’s smart to consider the “angles” of any new idea. I don’t disagree with that. The problem I see is in the style of exploration of a new idea. Don’t advocate for the devil. That’s stupid. Advocate for the person presenting the idea! That person is trying to contribute to the organization.
By playing the Devil’s advocate, we are starting from the wrong place. We are not only killing a potentially good idea but we are stifling creativity. People don’t like to be shot down in front of a group. Rejection hurts when it comes from the boss.
The total idea may not be great. Still, resist the urge to smother it. Even a less than perfect idea may have a kernel of merit. As managers, we want all the good ideas we can get, right? We want to foster creativity and problem solving, right? So try a different approach.
When a new idea pops out at the next meeting stun your staff by saying, “let’s take a minute to look at the merit of this. What gains do you see from trying this? Does anyone else see some possibility in this idea? I like that you’re thinking about this. Let’s see where your idea takes us.” It’s an entirely different approach.
Make a short list of the possible benefits of the idea. If there are sufficient benefits, THEN explore the possible downside elements AND how those elements might be overcome. Doesn’t that make sense? If there ARE benefits, shouldn’t we try to overcome the obstacles to those benefits? If the downside can’t be conquered the idea can be dropped.
This isn’t a long process. It will take no longer than advocating for the Devil or pushing back. It will change the way people interact at meetings and will permit new ideas to flourish.
Shameless Promotion: I can work with you on ideas like this to make your organization more dynamic. It’s what I do. Have me sit in on a couple of meetings and I will coach your organization toward an even more positive direction.
Chris Reich