I’ve been hooked this week by Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin. Seth briefly profiles the Devil’s Advocate, which he describes as a “card-carrying member of the Resistance” — a force that prevents remarkable ideas from coming to life. In his blog, Seth occasionally advises his readers to “uninvite the devil’s advocate, since the devil doesn’t need one, he’s doing fine.”
The Devil’s Advocate is a regular staffer in most offices. “Let me play Devil’s Advocate” is a socially acceptable way to shoot down an idea. It’s a guise that allows anyone to criticize an idea without offering an alternative. It’s far easier (and safer) to tear down than to create. You can undermine what someone has just proposed without actually challenging them directly.
The Devil’s Advocate is over 400 years old. The Roman Catholic Church officially created the Advocatus Diaboli position in 1587 to be the official skeptic when debating sainthood applications. His job was to be the official naysayer: slander the candidate’s character and argue that the miracles were fraudulent.
In 1983, Pope John Paul abolished the Devil’s Advocate position. As a result of this reform, he was able to canonize 500 and beatify 1,300 people in his tenure, compared to only 98 canonizations from all of his predecessors in the 20th century.
When the Devil’s Advocate lost his job with the Church, he started to hang out in business meetings. Swap the process of canonizing saints to canonizing ideas, and you can see the wet blanket effect that this role creates. It’s very hard to overcome the Devil’s Advocate’s argument because belief in an idea is an act of faith, not just an act of proof. There will always be reasonable doubt and the Devil’s Advocate is there to seed it.
If the Roman Catholic Church can abolish the Devil’s Advocate, why not your business? That’s not to say that you remove critical thought from the idea vetting process. Just channel that critical thought through a positive lens. Force yourself to start every sentence with “Yes, and” to make the idea stronger, not weaker, by the composite effect of the crowd. Don’t offer criticism unless you have an alternative solution to share. And don’t be afraid to take leaps of faith. Not all remarkable ideas can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
In your next meeting, ban the Devil’s Advocate and invite the Angel’s Advocate instead.
3 CommentsJoin the Discussion
Jeffrey L. Taylor says
IIRC, the Devil’s Advocate rotated, perhaps to make sure the Advocate didn’t become too invested in being the naysayer.
Charles Cousins says
Thomas Kelly offered some good advice as well on dealing with the Devil’s advocate in The “Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization.” It even has Devil in the title!
Another book that may be of interest is Creative Advertising by Mario Pricken. He had some good points on how to avoid killing an idea.
ralf schwartz says
A good point about the Devil’s Advocate, Tom.
And while reading Charles’ comment I remember when I decided to label the last part of the lead/marke process ‘Adocatus Diaboli’ – after reading ‘Ten Faces of Innovation’.