Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Be the Devil’s Advocate?

There has been quite a bit of buzz in the media and social networking sites about the potential for the world ending this coming Saturday. I am curious what time, because I have a really busy day! If it going to end at breakfast, there are a whole lot of things I won’t do on Friday.

That being said, the world ending brings up connotations of the afterlife – heaven and hell. This reminded me of one of my least favorite sayings, “The Devil’s Advocate.” Usually this advocate is brought out in the middle of a conversation regarding a new initiative or a product/service that someone wants to launch. A person will say authoritatively, “Well, let me be the devil’s advocate here.” What they really mean to say is, “If you don’t mind, I am going to take the license to totally trash everything you just said and let you know how stupid you really are.” Of course we are all too polite to actually say that, so we wrap ourselves in this role of being an objective questioner and looking at the downside of the proposal or situation.

No one wants to be Polyanna and just see the bright and shiny side of the world. But too often we let ourselves drift into the possibilities of the dark side. When someone becomes the devil’s advocate, they have a license to question every piece of logic and assumption proposed, without any responsibility to find a better solution. It’s like sitting on the side of the road throwing rocks at the passing cars from a hidden spot.

In the Plan B Philosophy, the focus is on adapting to the changing environment, while remaining true to the original vision of the product, service or business. This does not mean to ignore the situation or to not face the brutal reality, as Jim Collins would call it. Adaptability is about looking for possible ways that an idea could work, not in ripping down the ways that they currently work or might work in the future.

In all fairness, I have played the role of the devil’s advocate in my professional life. I called it skepticism and wore it like a badge of honor. “I am a realist,” I would say. Or “I am a pessimist – either I’m right or pleasantly surprised.” What I realized is that these comments were not helpful in moving things forward. Most often I blew up the conversation before it got going. It took an active and conscious thought process to begin to see the world differently and look for possibilities where others only saw obstacles and hurdles.

So, here’s my personal formula for helping an idea along:
  1. Listen carefully and with curiosity. Why would someone think this was a good idea? What is the core of the idea that could meet a customer need? Quiet your thoughts of “this can’t work” and start to think about “how could it work – what are the things that would be needed to make this wildly successful?”
  2. Ask good questions. Don’t assume you understand the other person’s perspective on the idea. Make sure you understand the core idea they are proposing. Many times we tear down an idea before we really understand it. I can’t even imagine how many great businesses were destroyed before they ever started by someone dismissing an idea before they even understood it fully.
  3. Look to build on the idea, rather than tear it down. Use phrases like “what if we did x” or “how could we make it do y” rather than “I don’t think it will work” and “haven’t you thought about…” Anyone can take an idea and tell you why it can’t work. It takes a special person and thought process to take the core of an idea and propose new components that make it better and more sustainable for the future.

In the end, my perspective is that the devil doesn’t need any advocates. What we need in our business and personal lives are people who build on ideas rather than tear them down.

One of my favorite quotes is from Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Rather than playing the role of the devil's advocate, make it a point to ask “why not?” 

1 comment:

  1. Well stated, Jeff. There are so many cynics in this world that enjoy shooting things down without providing a solution. It's easy for them. And what does it accomplish: nothing. My philosophy is that it's Ok to criticize or question something but offer a solution so the project -- or whatever it is -- can continue to move forward.

    Thank you for shooting down the Devil's Advocate and offering solutions in the form of your personal formula and Kennedy's optimistic quote.

    Good stuff!
    Mike Lawson