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December 02, 2014
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Beware Devil's Advocacy

December 02, 2014

According to wikipedia, a devil's advocate is "someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further."

I used to be a big fan of playing devil's advocate. It can be a great method for exploring different sides of a situation. When you can't have all lines of thinking represented (which is basically always), devil's advocacy can push you to get inside someone else's shoes. In theory, it sounds great. In practice, it doesn't always work that way.

I saw this practice misused and abused in a couple of different ways this year, and it has vastly changed the way I view devil's advocacy. When used improperly, or at the wrong time, this otherwise useful tool can become misleading, even downright damaging.

Let me present, Exhibit A.
In a large meeting for a community project, I witnessed someone say: "Just to play devil's advocate, can we consider..." and proceeded to present what I knew to be that person's own opinion. It's a shame this person didn't feel comfortable speaking up without a guise, and there may have been all kinds of invisible (to me) dynamics at play. I understand it is sometimes tough to debate and disagree with others, but cloaking your opinion behind devil's advocacy is not okay. It is far better to own your opinions. There are plenty of ways to gracefully and respectfully disagree.

sticky note brainstorm

Then there's Exhibit B.
Sometimes, playing devil's advocate is just wrong for a situation. I saw it used in a meeting that was supposed to be an idea-generating meeting. I noticed how quickly it changed the dynamic from positive and generative, to putting people on the defensive. I might not have been tuned-in enough to notice had I not been exposed to IDEO's rules of brainstorming. They're brilliant ground rules for meetings where you want to get to the most ideas possible:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on the topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Once I embraced these, I realized how important it is for all participants to understand the nature of a meeting – are you brainstorming, or are you refining and editing an existing pool of ideas? If it's the latter, then devil away. But if it's the former, and you want a lot of ideas, save the debate for another time.

I don't mean to suggest ruling out devil's advocacy completely. Rather, I urge consideration of two questions before dealing with the devil:

  1. Are you trying to argue your opinion in disguise?
  2. Is this the right time and place for debate?

It's sort of like drop shadow in the designer's toolkit – exercise some restraint, use it only when you need it, in the right time and place.



This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: “Flip the script. What did you change your mind about this year? Was it a big deal – the way you feel about an issue? Or something small – maybe you learned to like Brussels sprouts? What was the moment or series of moments that changed how you felt? How did your friends or family react? Have you uttered the phrase, "I'll never change my mind!" since then?"

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