“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” ~ R. Taverner
Every successful business needs a devil. It might be a big devil or a little devil, a part time devil or full time devil. Now before you call the exorcist, let’s examine why having a devil can be a good thing.
Before we go any further, let me explain the devil I’m talking about is not that one employee in every office who is Mr. (or Ms.) Negativity, the one who rains on everyone’s parade by shooting down ideas and suggestions before they have a chance to be explored. I am not talking about the person who feels it’s their right to show everyone how smart they are by trying to make everyone around them feel dumb. And unfortunately, it seems every office has a person like this.
No, the devil I’m talking about can help make everyone’s life, including your customers, a little better. The devil I’m talking about can help head off major problems and bring out the best efforts of an organization. I’m talking about a devil’s advocate, first used by the Roman Catholic Church to signify an official who is appointed to present arguments against a proposed canonization or beatification.
The definition of a devil’s advocate is “a person who identifies and challenges the flaws in an assessment, plan, or strategy.”
As an example, your team has been tasked with a new project, such as coming up with a mobile phone app for your customers. As a team leader, you would want to know how this app would be used, and what problems it could solve. As the app is being developed, you would want to have a fresh set of eyes looking at all functions of the app, and to see what could go wrong, what is redundant and what needs improving so these situations could be rectified before being brought to the consumer. A good devil’s advocate can bring up issues that might be ignored.
Key points for the organization to remember:
- The team can agree on having a devil’s advocate for a certain project or new idea.
- The team should bring in (or assign the role) early in the process, not at the end. The devil’s advocate may bring a problem out early enough in the development that might make management re-assess the entire project.
- The team needs to understand the role of the devil’s advocate and not take things personally.
- It must be a learning experience and educational for all.
- The devil’s advocate helps explore solutions, and cannot be seen as confrontational.
- All members of the team will need to put egos aside as the devil’s advocate is not targeting any one person.
- The devil’s advocate must be able to ask the tough questions without people getting defensive or choosing sides.
If you have been assigned the role of devil’s advocate, remember these key points:
- Know when to do it. It is not a 24/7 occupation.
- Listen. Then listen some more. And then ask the right questions by looking at processes through the eyes of the customer.
- Don’t attack the person presenting the ideas; question the evidence.
- When at all possible, suggest alternative solutions.
- Stay Positive.
- Don’t beat a dead horse. If you’ve pointed out a problem once or twice, that should be enough.
The right devil’s advocate will make it a win-win situation for everyone. He or she is really the consumer’s advocate by bringing up problems before they occur. The role of the devil’s advocate is to help you improve an idea, not shoot it down, and to make sure all options have been thoroughly explored.
Having an effective devil’s advocate can be a guardian angel in disguise, helping your company avoid mistakes that cost time and money. This can ultimately improve employee engagement, customer loyalty and create repeat business. And isn’t that why we’re in business?