I read an interesting article in the October edition of Fast Company. OK so I'm a bit behind on my reading. In that edition of Fast Company, there's an article about the 10 Faces of Innovation, a new book from Tom Kelley at Ideo. But what struck me was the focus of the article is on people who play devil's advocate in meetings.
That got me thinking - why is this "role" - the devil's advocate - acceptable in a conversation or meeting about ideas? This is probably the only role that any person in a meeting can assume without any prior agreement. The devil's advocate has no specified boundaries or requirements, other than to seek to delay the implementation of an idea, or better yet to kill the idea outright. There's no agreed role or definition of this role, yet it occurs virtually all the time.
In many meetings you attend, I bet you can guess who is going to be the "devil's advocate" for a proposal from the minute you sit down. What I want to know is - why as managers do we allow this behavior? In many cases the devil's advocate is simply against the idea, or believes the idea will distract from other more important initiatives. Usually, the items brought up are issues which have been considered and addressed previously, so you end up spending a lot of time talking about history. This is a key negotiation strategy by the way - keep talking and eventually people will lose interest.
In a meeting, the individuals who attend have the rights and responsibilities you give them, or that you allow them to have. Devil's advocates can commandeer a meeting fairly quickly and take over the agenda unless you are careful to manage their input and floor time. Perhaps it's time to create and define roles for a discussion group.
Maybe we should have people "sign up" for a role when they enter the meeting. The person presenting the idea obviously is an advocate for their idea or initiative. Anyone who wants to play a devil's advocate against the idea should be allowed to, within the context of the meeting and with appropriate rationale. Perhaps others who are in favor of the idea should be allowed to take on a new role - call it the angel advocate - who argues in favor of the idea. The point of all this is to ensure all facets of the argument are heard and understood, and that personal agendas and antagonism against an idea don't swamp the discussion.
A person does not gain sanctity or leave selfish reasons behind by taking on the role of devil's advocate. Listen to the next person who takes on that role - are they arguing for the sake of the idea, or to remove what they view as a risk or a threat to their position or power?
All of this is not to argue that we should not consider the positive and negative aspects when evaluating an initiative or idea. Just that we should not allow the devil's advocate to monopolize the discussion and slow productivity and decisionmaking by taking over a meeting. What other role in a business carries as much inherent power as the devil's advocate? What other instance in a business would you allow someone to take that much power, especially when they assume that power themselves? Playing a devil's advocate role, virtually anyone in an organization can kill an idea. Is that really what you want to have happen in your company?
The ability to point out problems with an idea is not that valuable. Anyone, presented with an initiative or an idea can identify SOMETHING wrong with it. What is powerful is the ability to see what could be accomplished if the idea were put into practice, and modified according to realistic concerns. Killing an idea is easy, implementing an idea is hard work.