January 10, 2015

The Devil's Advocate... or how to kill creativity


I do love my weekend dose of Hunting English, and this week's post was an interesting look at the role of Devil's Advocate in decision-making, and in learning:

In an election year, a time of miracle cures and vested interests pushing their cargo cults, we should pay heed to the Devil’s Advocate’s role in “suggest[ing] natural explanations for alleged miracles, and even to bring forward human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted heroic virtues”. When we are presented with the latest miracle cure for all our educational ills – be it teaching ‘character’; possessing a ‘growth mindset’; the latest technological wizardry; the latest research evidence; a new school structure or savior school leader; or even a newly ordained Secretary of State for Education – we should seek out natural explanations and ask challenging questions.

I left a comment on the post, with a caveat on the way the role of devil's advocate is taken, that I've learned over the past 8 years working in both education and in creative product teams:

I've had a mixed relationship with the devil's advocate role (and even the film ;-). I've found it useful before, when I've been it, but always wondered why I was irked when someone started with the phrase "just to be the devil's advocate...". It was reading Stanford creativity researcher, James Adams' Conceptual Blockbusting and then Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation that I discovered why that particular blanket role is not as helpful as approaching it with a specific goal in mind. Kelley's suggestion is that it can be approached from one of these ten creative team roles, roles I recognise in the creative industry teams I've worked in. I've talked about the effort in avoiding a black and white, yes and no "devil's advocate" type role in my new book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas.

One of the key reasons for doing this, is that when most (unskilled) devil's advocates adopt that role, the put the onus of proving or disproving a state on the person making the suggestion, meaning that, over time, there is more chance that people resist making potentially risky or alternative suggestions to the status quo.

In short: it can kill creativity and innovation. When people play the devil's advocate well, they are often the ones presenting the evidence that might suggest an alternative viewpoint, and opening an opportunity for learning. When they just state the opposite, based on gut feel or personal opinion, it can be the most demoralising blow to people trying to advance their own knowledge, their team or the field.

Pic CC by Shallom


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Hi Ewan, your post reminded me of something I read in David Price's book 'Open'. Talking about creativity killing practices, he pointed out that, left unchecked, people come to believe, and "are professional rewarded" [1760 kindle] for being critical of new ideas. I made a new connection to that idea when I read your post about the 'Devil's Advocate'. I have seen first hand how adopting that title can lend validity to the speaker given it's cultural history. When it is taken on to defend the status quo, as you pointed out, it becomes another big creativity killer. What I'm wondering about is, when we do find ourselves in a situation when 'The Devil' shows up, how might we sensitively shift the conversation? Guess I should read your new book!

Thanks for the comment Glenda. One of the greatest challenges for teams, especially in schools but also in creative firms like TV stations (personal experience here... ;-), is that they do not have norms for conversations that are useful for opening up alternatives. Most meetings, in fact, are about narrowing things down before anyone around the table has had a chance to dive deep enough, divergently enough, to really know their onions.

New norms can be encouraged simply by having a set of cue cards for roles on the table - of which the Devil's Advocate is not one. When we throw a cue card over to someone pretending to be devil's advocate we can push them to see things from multiple angles - not just the on-off one of the DA.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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