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Death by Devil's Advocate


Tom Kelley--general manager of IDEO--believes that "devil's advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today." We've all been in a meeting where a passionate idea is put forth but someone plays devil's advocate and drains the life out of the room. Invoking "the awesome protective power" lets the devil's advocate be incredibly negative and slash your idea to shreds, all while appearing not only innocent but reasoned, balanced, intelligent... all attributes loaded with business "goodness". Whew! Thank GOD for the devil's advocate, or we'd all be off blundering with our stupid ideas, oblivious to the insurmountable problems we were too clueless to see.

And it's that attitude--that notion that people can use "playing devil's advocate" with impunity--that Kelley believes is so damaging. In the October edition of Fast Company magazine, there's an excerpt from Kelley's upcoming book The Ten Faces of Innovation which is all about ways to defeat the devil's advocate to keep innovation alive. From the excerpt:

"What makes this negative persona so dangerous is that it is such a subtle threat. Every day, thousands of great new ideas, concepts, and plans are nipped in the bud by devil's advocates.
Why is this persona so damning? Because a devil's advocate encourages idea wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective, one that sees only the downside, the problems, the disasters-in-waiting. Once those floodgates open, they can drown a new initiative in negativity."

Part of the problem is simply the timing of the devil's advocate invocation; if the devil jumps in at the earliest stage, the idea never has a hope in hell, or ends up being having all of its sharp edges smoothed over. And there's a big difference between someone crushing an idea based on spinning out possible negative scenarios, vs. someone who voices a genuine concern backed with real facts.

But this is tricky and subtle... I've been known to be the one to "voice a genuine concern backed with real facts" without stopping to consider whether those "facts" were still valid. The old, "We tried that before and it didn't work." is probably the fastest way to stop an idea, but someone always needs to ask, "Are we sure we tried EXACTLY that?" and "Has something changed in a way that invalidates what we tried earlier?" Or even just this response when someone says, "We tried that...", "You tried what?" Maybe the thing that was tried before was different in some non-obvious but profound way.

The other tricky thing is that if you try to shut a devil's advocate down, then you're perceived as being "unwilling to hear criticism" or "can't handle any disagreement". And of course, for however dangerous the devil's advocate is, there's the equally-dangerous "angel of optimism". The "angel of optimism" is one who answers every genuine criticism with a cheerful and dismissive, "Oh, there's always someone thinking the sky is falling." This doesn't mean that being cheerful and positive is a bad thing (as one who is all too often accused of playing this role), but both the angel of optimism and devil's advocate can do damage when they shut down other solutions.

I have no good answers to this, but Kelley offers some in his book. His main tool to fight against the devil's advocate is to simply have other personas. In other words, if Fred can play devil's advocate, then Danese can play a different role, one of the "ten faces" in the title of the book. These include "the anthropologist", "the experimenter", "the experience architect", "the storyteller", and "the cross-pollinator".

One thing I know for sure, whether playing devil's advocate, angel of optimism, or any other persona, I believe the emphasis should be on offering solutions, not just criticism. Yes it's true that one can know something is wrong without knowing how to fix it, but if people tried to adopt the perspective that "I'm going to try to always include possible alternatives and solutions when I critcize", it might make meetings a little more bearable.

Posted by Kathy on October 6, 2005 | Permalink


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Ten personas seems too many. Edward de Bono suggested 6 colored hats were enough. One of those was the Blue Hat to don when acting as the voice of process, to make sure that all was rolling along in the best and most effective way. Another was indeed the Black Hat for the Devil's Advocate position. Another was the Yellow Hat for Optimism.

The important thing is at what point in the process do you don the various colored hats. Initially I think it's appropriate that all don the Green Hat for creativity. Get as many ideas, crazy or not, on the table or preferably on sticky notes on the wall. When the brainstorming has produced as many ideas as possible, then you've got to compare and contrast. That's when the Black Hat among others has a place. On the whole I think it's important that at some time in the process the Black Hat or Devil's Advocate should speak up. That's the way to strengthen the idea so that the pessimistic outcomes never arise.

Anyway this is another great topic to be discussing, Kathy. You seem to keep producing these rabbits out of your hat, of whatever color.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Oct 6, 2005 4:51:08 PM

I remember, recently, organizing a brainstorming session around the idea for a new TV series. We invited a small, but creative, group togehter to possibly conceive of at least a band of characteres and a bit of a story line to start with.

I, inadvertantly, had invited the V.O.D. (the voice of doom). Not that we didn't know ahead of time that the VOD was on her way, but that we were a bit reluctant to accept that we needed her at this time in our story developement.

I prepped her with thoughts of, "we're just in the concept phase, so if you could be open that would be great."

Luckily she held off, as difficult as it was, and contributed to our brainstorming session as positively as she could. VOD's get the bad rap, as a rule. They are perceived as the ones who always coming fron the 'what if' side of things. VOD's are necessary, but only at the point at which you can concede after having lived in the clouds for a time and need to come down to reality.

VOD's CAN and WILL bring you and your group down if you let them. Their negativity can determine the ultimate outcome of an otherwise innovative and creative project. But only if you are insecure enought to allow their input to be as influential early on.

Timing...it's all about timing.

Posted by: Cyn | Oct 6, 2005 5:53:58 PM

Sometimes devils advocate sounds like this: "have you ever considered...?".

Its also something to make sure you don't end up being devils advocate yourself. Its too bad that only after reading this, have I ever considered the damage I may do. And usually when I am playing devils advocate, I feel like my intentions are good (protective of others failing).

Kind of a scary thing to think, that with all the energy I put into good ideas and better solutions, I might actually be killing off the best ones myself by trying to "prevent" mistakes.

Posted by: Clint Hill | Oct 6, 2005 8:04:40 PM

Great post.

I am myers-brigg type, ENTP... there is something that my ENTP friend calls 'dreamkillers'. I think they are somewhat related to the VOD & Devils Advocates you list. A dreamkiller is someone who takes ENTP natural high output of ideas and shoots them down, often very subtly - doesn't always take the form of disapproval, but can take many forms. Silent disapproval of idea generation, not engaging with the ENTP, etc.

Thanks for the thought.

Posted by: Ryan Rawson | Oct 6, 2005 10:00:48 PM

agreed. if your ideas are always getting shot down, who wants to come back in with more?

Posted by: robyn | Oct 7, 2005 1:24:09 AM

I've actually worked with someone that used to play the devils advocate card in every discussion, and being the nice person that I'm I took his approach as a constructive one for a few months until I realized that he never actually came up with a solution or offered any viable alternative.

After a few more months the whole office was on to him and in one of the meeting I cut him off while was getting ready to utter his famous worked and told him to keep his opinion to himslef. Of course this was viewed by some as harsh and probably less than proffessional, but what was I to do?? Bear in mind this person was a highly paid consultant and was supposed to come upo with ideas and solutions for us!!

I guess I wouldn't mind listening to someone that would critique an idea that is put forward as long as he or she is sincere and ginuine, and would provide an alternate solution or idea once in a while.

Posted by: Hesham | Oct 7, 2005 2:02:28 AM

There is a great discussion along these lines in Valerie Pierce's book Quick Thinking On Your Feet, with really helpful techniques for recovering momentum if someone plays devil's advocate or a nastier trick. If you are stuck with a devil's advocate, make the most of their creativity in coming up with ways in which the project will fail, and use those objections to strengthen your project. Valerie refers to this as turning "No, because" into "Yes, if". "No, we can't do this because the printer is broken." is the same as "Yes, we can do this if the printer gets fixed." If you can turn the devil's "no, because" into a "yes, if" then you have a stronger project.

Posted by: Ana Nelson | Oct 7, 2005 4:29:35 AM

One of my favourite quotes is:
"Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome." -- Samuel Johnson

Posted by: Geoff | Oct 7, 2005 5:14:38 AM

This was actually a really thought-provoking article for me, so much so that I wrote an entire article on how to understand Devils' Advocates:


I'd be interested in hearing if this meshes at all with your experiences, and if my analysis reframes the situation any.

Plus: I've got suggestions! ;-)

Posted by: Coda Hale | Oct 7, 2005 11:37:03 AM

I JUST read that article an hour ago. It's so true. being in charge of product development for the company I work for, it's my job to bring new ideas to the table, and every single time I do, someone grows a little pair of red horns and tries to slaughter it right there and then.

I've become used to it, and experience has proven that such detractors can be easily handled on the spot by agreeing with them.

"Sure, John. It's pretty unlikely, but that is one of the possible nightmare scenarios we've already identified. We're working on some simple solutions to make sure all of our bases are covered in case it happens. Actually, if you want to help us with that, I'd really appreciate it."

With the right attitude, you can steal the ball right back. Bam. Thanks for volunteering to help us. A quick glance around the room should confirm that the VP's are nodding in approval. Moving right along.

You can't be afraid of the devil's advocate. Since they're only speaking up to "help", let them help. recruit them in your endeavor and make your success their success.

It works. :)

Great post.

Posted by: Olivier Blanchard | Oct 7, 2005 12:21:24 PM

"beneath every no/lays a passion for yes that had never been broken" - Wallace Stevens.

the trick is turning the devil's passion for no into a passion for yes.

voice of reason, voice of doom...whatever...if a person wants their ideas to be accepted and adapted, they need to play the devil in their own mind first in order to counter the voices that will arise later. if a person exhibits expertise in countering the VOD/VOR, there will become fewer voices raised in opposition and authority will be earned. once authority is established, the devil will play elsewhere.

Posted by: jbr | Oct 7, 2005 12:34:19 PM


Good insight. Turning a nay-sayer into a follower can often be as simple as rephrasing their comment and asking them to help in the endeavor. Leadership is key here.

Posted by: Robyn | Oct 7, 2005 3:32:14 PM

I'm often generating all sorts of ideas at my company, some good and some bad. I also, on many occasions, play the role of devil's advocate.

The truth is, a lot of ideas suck. Good ideas can withstand the devil's heat. The DA is just thinning the herd.

If you think your idea has merit, be passionate and confident in defending it from negativity. You should be prepared to be your own devil's advocate: be honest about potential issues and solutions.

We often try to generate ideas in a DA-free zone: all ideas are noted and positively discussed. Later, we unleash the hell hounds and tear through the ideas, looking for the fittest memes.

Posted by: Jon | Oct 8, 2005 12:53:15 PM

"The truth is, a lot of ideas suck. Good ideas can withstand the devil's heat. The DA is just thinning the herd."

No Jon. That's bollocks. Playing devils advocate will always kill any good idea. What you are really saying is that you're closed to any idea that you don't understand instantly.

The way of doing it is to take the idea and get the person who had it to walk you though it - and you help them over the obstacles. If THEY concede that it won't work after all - or that it isn't worth doing after all - then you'll have tested the idea properly.

But the moment you start picking holes in someone elses idea, you will invariably kill it.

Posted by: Paul Evans | Apr 6, 2006 5:11:12 AM

I've just heard him talk about this in his audio book "10 Faces of Innovation" it is a very interesting point and it really helps to frame a discussion when you avoid invoking the Devil's Advocate.

Posted by: George Morris | Dec 7, 2006 4:18:04 PM

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