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devilI just finished reading The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley, who is with the design and innovation consulting firm IDEO in Palo Alto, California.  I am reading about innovation these days because I want to do everything possible to encourage and promote it at the School.  We are more likely to generate new ideas to advance our mission if we are conscious of the conditions, structures, and processes that will facilitate innovation.  Innovation is one feature of a high-performing organization, which is something that emerged as a priority in our strategic planning

Kelley describes ten roles that different people play in organizations to promote innovation.  For example, he talks about the role of the anthropologist, who “brings new learning and insights into the organization by observing human behavior and developing a deep understanding” of how people use products and services.  This involves learning by observing your clients with “fresh eyes”  and with empathy, and then using your insights to design a better way of meeting their needs.  Kelley believes that you must always listen to clients, but he does not believe that innovative breakthroughs occur by asking them to envision your future.  He reinforces his point by quoting Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

In addition to the other roles that promote innovation, Kelley describes one role that “may be the biggest innovation killer in America today”—the Devil’s Advocate.  Why?  “Because the 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.”  This is an interesting perspective and one that resonates with me, though I don’t think most people who adopt that role are intending to stop new ideas.  I see this approach occasionally in our conversations at the School as we consider possible new ideas or initiatives, and I certainly have been guilty of playing that role.  Academic training, especially legal training, encourages a kind of analytical thinking that emphasizes spotting the flaws in ideas or arguments.  It is easy to focus on the weaknesses and on what might go wrong, and somehow it is less natural to put your faith in what might go right.

Kelley argues that innovation requires experimenting with less than perfect information and then making adjustments along the way—and sometimes failing and learning from that failure.  He quotes Thomas Edison: “I have not failed.  I have merely found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”  The subtitle of Kelley’s book is IDEO’s Strategies For Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. To be clear, he is all for constructive criticism, free debate, and critical thinking.  But too often the Devil’s Advocate refuses to take “a real stand, preferring to tear down an idea with clever criticism . . . . ”  Kelley contends that intentionally developing the ten innovative roles in an organization is one way of challenging the negative perspective coming from the Devil’s Advocate.

What can we do to adopt a more balanced perspective in considering new ideas—seeing the possibilities as well as the potential challenges?  Can we become more comfortable with taking risks that might produce great new areas of work, but that might also fail?  I’ll be writing and talking more about innovation in the coming weeks, so please let me know what you think.  What do you think about Kelley’s perspective on the Devil’s Advocate?

7 thoughts on “The Devil’s Advocate

  1. I believe the biggest danger of the Devil’s Advocate is our failure to counter thinking about “what could go wrong?” with “what could go right?” Critical thinking is an important tool for identifying flaws and avoiding foreseeable problems. Providing time for and encouraging optimistic, dare I say “Polly Anna” thinking, is something we usually shy away from. Just imagine how we react when someone says “let me play the Devil’s Advocate for a minute” versus “let me put on the rose-colored glasses for a minute.” We’re much more tolerant (and thankful) to the person who helps us see what could go wrong, but often denigrate the person who is overly optimistic. By allowing, even encouraging, ourselves to put on the rose-colored glasses we can find merit in ideas that may, at first, seem outrageous. My father once told me “A wise person dreams at night and works during the day.” Without this balance, the Devil’s Advocate makes even the most worthy dreams look like nightmares.

    1. Thanks, Vaughn. A related issue is a common assumption that there are no negative consequences for an organization if it fails to take action on a new proposal. I agree with your perspective, but what can we do to help insure a more balanced consideration of new ideas? Is it possible to do something around groundrules that encourages it?

  2. I’m not touching this one with a ten-foot pitch fork!

    I have not read the book, but have been a devil’s advocate and have been in meetings where at least one person is playing that role.

    It could depend on where the group is in the process – early on, in the brainstorming part – devil’s advocates are real downers. As the group becomes more detailed in their thinking, the role might actually be helpful in pointing out some pitfalls – but by that time the group is fully committed to moving forward together.

    Nobody should ever advocate for the devil, as we say, anyway. Most of the negative stuff said by the devil’s advocate is information that folks are already considering on their own and are using that information to make their positive comments more useful to the process.

    Just my opinion.

    1. Thanks for responding, Katherine. You make a nice point about the timing of the devil’s advocate. It absolutely has no place during brainstorming. I also think how it is done can make a difference. It is fine to point out pitfalls, but it is even better to make suggestions for avoiding those pitfalls.

  3. I like your thoughts on the “wet rag” or “damp cloth” effect of the devil’s advocate, and have felt it on numerous occasions at the school. Sometimes its our processes and policies, or even past experience (wounds) that are cited as reasons something can’t or hasn’t been done–it has the effect of shutting down the discussion and simply exploring the possibilities, or even the review of the existing policy/procedure. On the other hand, I’ve also been in meetings where faculty/program managers have been eager rethink established ways and precedent and explore new ideas. I gotta say, I really relish those discussions/moments.
    The DAC committees were set up to facilitate some of this think-outside-the-box work for the school, and committee members may have opportunities to do some exploring of new ideas/directions. For the many individuals not on a DAC committee of interest, or for innovative ideas that appear to fall outside of the identified school priorities, its sometimes hard to know how/where/if to share ideas.
    Of course we can’t do everything as a school, and not everyone who wants to can be on a committee…but nor do all innovations need a months-long committee process. A reminder of where to send suggestions would be helpful.

  4. Mike and commenters: good points; let me offer something different:

    1. Do we have an SOG example of a significant innovation that has not gone right, and those that took the risk were rewarded despite the less the delightful outcome? If we can’t name and support “unsuccessful innovations” then we’ll have a hard time really pushing the innovation envelope.

    2. How can we at SOG be encouraged to take risks when many values/goals of local and state government point in the opposite direction (RE: follow the rules and you are safe; do your job and stay within your area of responsibility; be careful with taxpayer money, etc.)?

    1. These are two very interestng points, John. Following this train of thought, additional questions come to my mind (which aren’t intended to be “Devilish”!):

      1. How are “success” and “failure” defined and measured in the context of our SOG work? (I agree that examples would be helpful – concepts like “innovation,” “risk-taking,” and “entrepreneurial academics” can mean different things to different people)

      2. How do our SOG views of “success” and “failure,” “innovation” and “risk” mesh with the campus’ traditional reward systems for faculty and staff? Would Thomas Edison have been granted a promotion, reappointment, or tenure BEFORE he invented the lightbulb?

      3. What existing policies (especially those of main campus) under which we operate act as either real or perceived barriers to innovation, and how might we go about identifying and changing them? (The Provost’s current “call for ideas” on the new academic plan provides one very immediate opportunity for such input).

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