Devil's Advocate For The Win

Pop quiz: The shit just hit the fan and the new service you’ve invested tons of time and oodles of money in is tanking.  Who do you call? 

Option #1 – Someone who supported the idea in the beginning, listens well, gets mad or sad with you, and encourages you to keep going.

Option #2 – Someone who didn’t support the idea in the beginning, often gives unsolicited advice, and loves to critique your business. 

If you’re like most business owners you surround yourself with people who champion your ideas.  When you think of the concept they tell you, “I love it.”  When you start filling in details on it they say, “Really great!”  When you show them the finished product they say, “It’s even better than you described.”  When you show them your website to market the idea their response is, “It’s so much better than anything out there.” And when your product hits the fan you complain to your support crew and they commiserate by saying, “You made something incredible, people just don’t know what they’re missing.  You’ll get them next time…”

We love these people in our lives.  Who wouldn’t? They make us feel good about ourselves and our ideas, especially when we’re most vulnerable in the early stages and tough times.  They give us the encouragement to get started, to take a risk, and they get mad and sad with us when things aren’t going well.  Yes, these are the best of friends.

But surrounding yourself with people who always support your decisions is risky – even dangerous – for your business.  Bankruptcy files are filled with companies who were run into the ground (or never even got off the ground) because no one told the owner, “I’m not sure if I agree with you.  Have you thought of X?”   

Why do we need these contrarians, these critics in our lives?  First, they put a stop to the dangers of groupthink.  Groupthink occurs when a group of people are so concerned with maintaining unanimity and harmony they don’t openly discuss alternative ideas.  Consequences include overestimating success rates, underestimating risks, ignoring expert advice, failing to make contingency plans, unoriginality, and hindering innovation and creativity because people are scared to be different.*  Clearly these are bad things to see in your team.

Critics also do an excellent job of pointing out flaws.  While it may be hard to hear about all the things that don’t work, asking someone to reveal weaknesses in a new product or service before it goes to market is better than potential customers finding the flaws and not buying what you’re selling after you’ve rolled it out.  If something’s not working well inside the company, an outsider who’s not concerned with getting everyone to like him/her may have a greater chance at coming up with an innovative way to approach the problem. 

Here are some practical ways to stop groupthink and get better services and products to your clients.

·      Stop asking friends or your spouse for business advice.

·      Start filling your professional circle with people who disagree with you. 

·      Stop asking smart people for advice in areas they do not know very well.

·      Start learning which colleagues could be advisors in key areas for you.

·      Stop avoiding conflict over business needs.

·      Start asking advisors to find problems before they blow up.

·      Stop going to market with every idea.

·      Start beta testing on trusted clients to get their opinion before scaling.

·      Stop hoping things will get better if you just work harder.

·      Start seeking advice from people at the first signs of problems.

·      Stop asking for ideas in a group environment.

·      Start getting opinions from people one-on-one.

·      Stop ostracizing employees for disagreeing with you.

·      Start encouraging your team to poke holes in how things are (not) working.

·      Stop valuing how someone’s opinion makes you feel.

·      Start valuing how someone’s opinion makes your company better.

The devil’s advocate gets a bad rap in today’s culture of trying to make everyone feel good through acceptance and inclusion.  Interestingly, the term was coined and role created by the Catholic Church to argue against the canonization of a candidate and find flaws.  We can’t all be saints and no idea is perfect.  Find your devil’s advocate and use him/her for your most important decisions.  

*Ironically, creative people are often the ones stamping out creativity in others.  In a business, the creative director has often built a strong reputation for genius ideas in subjective matters like design.  People are drawn to them because of their reputation, and less experienced employees don’t think they could create something as good or even better than the creative director.  Other times, the boss gets so full of him/herself that he starts to see everything, including is own team’s work, as inferior, and no one challenges him/her because the risks are too high.  This idolatry groupthink is rampant in larger creative firms.