We’ve all been there: you push forward a new idea, something you’re really passionate about. The idea seems to gain some traction, then…smack down! Someone weighs in with those fateful words: “Let me just play devil’s advocate…”
Now I’m not trying to eliminate meaningful debate; weighing the pros and cons of an idea remains a vital function of the group dynamic. My point is that meaningful debate shouldn’t kill innovation. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that the devil’s advocate – that person (or persons) who is always willing to throw a wet blanket on a burgeoning idea – has too prominent a position on far too many of our teams.
It’s easier (and safer) to criticize than to create
In credit union land, the words “let me play devil’s advocate” have become an acceptable way to shoot down an idea. It’s a facade that allows anyone to rip your idea full of holes, often without offering an alternative. If left unchecked, a devil’s advocate can undermine members of your team without having to actually challenge them directly.
Why is the devil’s advocate allowed to roam so freely in credit union land? My best guess is that the he or she is recognized and rewarded more frequently than the innovator. What happens on your team when a new idea is put forth? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Is there a healthy debate supported equally by both sides, and a desire to flesh out the best possible outcome?
- Does the devil’s advocate dominate the vetting process, contributing to the swift death of new ideas?
- Who carries more prestige on your team: the devil’s advocate or the innovator?
- Is innovation dead or dying at your organization?
Economic challenges and regulatory oversight are big contributors to our becoming more risk-adverse. Unfortunately, far too many of us have begun overtly avoiding risk, thus fanning the flames of today’s devil’s advocates. If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, you might want to remind yourself and your team of this Samuel Johnson quote: “Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.”
Taking your devil’s advocate by the horns
First, identify the devil’s advocates in your life, the people who are always the first to throw darts at your ideas. Consider ways you can negate their constant nay-saying and overcome negativity. Ideas include:
- Inviting them to your next brainstorming session so that they better understand your process.
- Anticipating their criticism and being prepared with your responses.
- Asking team members to debate both sides of an idea and assigning the chronic devil’s advocate to the “pro” position.
- Thanking them, acknowledging that you have heard their concerns, and asking the rest of the group if there are any other reactions.
- Offering to address their concerns one-by-one in a more casual setting, such as over lunch at a popular eatery.
Your devil’s advocate’s objections are just the beginning
Understanding how best to quell a devil’s advocate often comes from an understanding of the individual themselves. Many hard-working team members have slowly evolved into devil’s advocates after being disproportionally recognized for their hyper-practicality. The next time someone on your team shoots down an idea straight out of the gate, insist on accountability. Ask them to create a modified proposal of the suggested idea. Hold the devil’s advocate accountable for identifying the work-around, and end the meeting with an assignment for each team member. The unfortunate alternative: a meeting that concludes with no action plan because too much time was spent listening to the devil’s advocate roast workable ideas, productivity and the group’s morale.
We need balanced debate with our eyes clearly focused on our long-term vision and mission
To be clear: I’m not advocating you be a cheerleader and “rah-rah-rah” every idea brought forth. After all, we have to be responsible stewards, and some of us can’t afford very large mistakes. I’m just suggesting that we consider the devil’s advocate role on our team and make sure they don’t have more power or influence than is necessary. The objective is balanced debate, with our eyes clearly focused on our long-term vision and shorter-term missions. Innovation is needed today more than ever, and, if left unchecked, our devil’s advocates may become toxic to our cause.