6 Ways to Deal with Your Devil’s Advocate

I was struck hard by this cartoon honoring superstar children’s author Maurice Sendak, who passed away last week. Sendak was an fearlessly innovative storyteller, who introduced previously taboo topics and tone into his work beginning with Where the Wild Things Are. It’s no surprise that the childrens’ publishing establishment didn’t welcome his innovations with open arms, but Sendak persisted with game-changing results.

“When it was published in 1963, the book was hated by critics and banned in libraries. Wild ideas always attract naysayers. But wild ideas are the ones that make a dent. Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most awarded and influential children’s books in history. But too often wild ideas are smothered or diluted before they’ve really had a chance,” says Marketoonist Tom Fishburne.

“IDEO founder Tom Kelley once called the devil’s advocate the single greatest threat to innovation,” continues Fishburne, “because a devil’s advocate encourages idea wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective. Once those floodgates open, they can drown a new initiative in negativity.”

Here’s what works best when a devil’s advocate surfaces in one of our client organizations:

  1. Depersonalize the difference of opinion, staying calm and confident. Devil’s advocates tend to pounce when they see weakness.
  2. Pick your battles.
  3. For those that really matter, ensure that you have more than just you and the devil’s advocate battling it out. An odd number of discussion participants (three or more) eases decision making.
  4. Thank the devil’s advocate for testing the feasibility of your idea.
  5. Ask the devil’s advocate for their alternative solution to the problem they’re voicing. It’s far easier to punch holes in someone else’s idea than to come up with a good one of your own, but they might come up with something great.
  6. Have proof points ready—models from competitive and colleague organization, stats, stories from peers in the field. Validation trumps opinion every time.

What are your strategies for dealing with devil’s advocates? Please share them here.

P.S. Get more peer guidance on strengthening your organization’s marketing impact with the free Getting Attention Nonprofit Marketing Wisdom Guide.

Nancy Schwartz on May 14, 2012 in Strategy | 2 comments
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  • Bobbie Lewis

    You are so right about “validation trumps opinion.” A couple of years ago I was invited to be on a panel about social media at a managers’ retreat with our HR person and our IT person, both of whom were very wary of this “new” thing. The week before I had attended a wonderful workshop by Shel Holtz which was all about why organizations should allow employees access to social media on the job. I came armed with statistics and stories, while they had only vague worries, and I blew them away!

  • The devil’s advocate is the most powerful ally in getting an idea across the line.  I include that person early in the idea stage because they help produce a robust result.  They also become the greatest sales person for the idea as they see the other sides better than those who are just hesitant.

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