The Role of the Devil’s Advocate in Modern Business

By Kevin Ashton • March 13, 2015

This is a post that has been floating around in my head for a while, caused by many decisions I have seen in the businesses in which I have worked (mostly with regard to software purchases, but the idea can be generalised). I will start with defining the idea of a devil’s advocate and then move on to where I think it has a place in the modern business world. In my view the idea is also closely related to that of the 10th man rule (made famous by World War Z).

Wikipedia gives a nice simplified description to the idea of a devil’s advocate:

In common parlance, 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. In taking this position, the individual taking on the devil's advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process. The purpose of such a process is typically to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original, opposing position.

Their description of the history of the devil’s advocate in the Catholic Chuch gives a nice bit of history to the term:

During the canonization process employed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Promoter of the Faith (Latin: promotor fidei), popularly known as the Devil's advocate (Latin: advocatus diaboli), was a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate.[2] It was this person’s job to take askeptical view of the candidate's character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on. The Devil's advocate opposed God's advocate (Latin: advocatus Dei; also known as the Promoter of the Cause), whose task was to make the argument in favor of canonization.

So what does a tradition that is a few hundred years old have to do with business? Quite a lot in my opinion. For the examples I reference, it will be with regard to software purchases, but hopefully you will see how the idea has merits to other areas of business.

As a developer, I am often very cynical of software that is purchased at an executive level (often without the involvement of the people who will be responsible for maintaining or supporting said software). Many of the other developers / IT people I know refer to software purchased in such a manner as golf-course ware (The idea being that the executives bought it based on a sales pitch delivered at the 19th hole), although it is has another name in terms of Software Anti-Patterns – The Boat Anchor.

Such software is often bought with the noble purpose of enhancing business performance or meeting a specific requirement that the person responsible for making the decisions feels exists. The decision tends to bypass the IT department and therefore may or may not fit in with the technology landscape at the organisation. So where does the devil’s advocate come in?

My argument is that the software purchasing process should be submitted to the same rigorous scrutiny that other business decisions should be. When a decision is to be made with regards to the purchase or implementation of new software, there should always be at least on voice of dissent in the crowd. This devil’s advocate has the responsibility of arguing (with valid arguments, proof - which could be in the form of case studies, or other verifiable evidence- and propose alternative solutions that meet the requirements), why the implementation of said purchase should not go ahead (even if they feel that the purchase is a good idea and they fully support it). As per the Isreali system of 10th man rule, if 9 officials agree, then the 10th person has to disagree whether they support the idea or not.

The idea is not to stop the decision making process, or delay important decisions – in our modern world business agility is key. The purpose of the process as I see it is twofold. First, the idea will encourage the business decision makers to consider other options, and ensure that they are coming to the decision with all of the relevant facts at their disposal. Secondly, it will introduce some form of time delay between the proposal of the idea, and the acceptance of it (the sales people of the product vendor will probably hate this), thus ensuring that impulse decisions are more effectively curtailed.

In my experience, the idea works as well in the small as it does in the large (although it requires at least 2 people to be part of the decision making process to be effective). For an example of a small scenario: developers, when starting a new software development project, get a team member to criticise the tools, technologies and processes that you have suggested and advocate for something else. Even if you still go with your original choices, you will at least have some idea of other options that can be kept in mind when making future decisions.

Are there problems with the idea? Of course there are. The role of a devil’s advocate cannot work if the individual(s) selected to play the role are not able to maintain a certain level of objectivity. It also will not work in an environment where decisions are strictly top-down without allowing input, or if the devil’s advocate is not viewed as a trustworthy person (preferably an expert in their field). There are probably other issues too, but I’ll leave that up to you to discuss in the comments.