The Importance of a Devil’s Advocate

The 2013 movie World War Z starring Brad Pitt describes Israel as having something called the tenth man rule. An Israeli official explains to Pitt’s character Gerry Lane that after the Yom Kippur War took Israeli leaders by surprise, Israel’s ten-man leadership group instituted a rule. Anytime nine of the leaders look at the same information and arrive at the exact same conclusion, the tenth man is required to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start digging on the assumption that the other nine are wrong. The fictional Israeli leader explains that when early reports of zombies arrived, nine leaders disregarded them; the tenth was required to investigate. When investigation produced evidence, the leadership anticipated and prepared for the zombie invasion.

In reality, the Yom Kippur War did not inspire Israel to require its top leadership to actively disagree with each other. The war did inspire Israel to create a Devil’s Advocate office in its military intelligence organization. The Devil’s Advocate office is staffed by experienced and respected officers whose conclusions and memos go directly to the Director of Military Intelligence and all major decision makers. Responsible with ensuring that Israeli intelligence does not fall prey to group think, the Devil’s Advocate office regularly criticizes the reports of other analysis divisions and writes counter opinions.

3 Principles for a Good Devil’s Advocate System

A recent Forbes article stated that “any organization that aspires to innovate but has not embraced an explicit devil’s Advocate process should read Megan McArdle’s recent Opening Remarks column at BusinessWeek on Why Negativity is Really Awesome.” She discusses a series of large scale disasters where reputations, jobs, and even lives were needlessly lost. In each case, individuals within the organization raised a warning but were ignored or forced quiet. Having a devil’s advocate that is specifically responsible for raising tough questions in a constructive way is critical for success. Also note that this doesn’t just apply to catastrophic events, but should guide day to day decisions. The following are three things that will be helpful as you follow this model.

  1. You have to set up an explicit structure that creates a devil’s advocate process. Simply hoping that someone will step in and assume the role is unpredictable, insufficient, and problematic. At best, spontaneous disagreement is likely to occur during final decision-making instead of preparatory decision-development. Final decision-making is a time where each individual has already chosen sides, making disagreement more difficult. Specificity improves process and effectiveness.
  2. Framing the devil’s advocacy is essential. I appreciated having a contrarian in our group in my college class, but he would point problems out without offering any kind of solution or game plan. Being the devil’s advocate isn’t about killing projects or even merely about identifying flaws. Being the devil’s advocate is about building better projects, and identifying strength.
  3. The devil’s advocate process needs to play a continual role, participating in each iteration and challenging assumptions throughout the development process. If your contrarian is only allowed a single hearing—especially at the end or without momentum—three adverse effects are likely. First, your contrarian will lack the ability to build personal momentum in the project, meaning less personal investment and less effort. Second, your contrarian will lack insight into the process and assumptions that led to the final conclusion, decreasing the value of his or her insight. Third, your contrarian will have less time to build credibility among team members, meaning even good insights will have less impact.

I advise my clients to always set up a structure and designate a person to be the devil’s advocate, because I have seen many examples where it worked. I have seen untested decisions that were untested by an internal contrarian and were unprepared for later external tests. A devil’s advocate provides a valuable service in any context: school, work, or even fictional zombies.

Some group-think may be unavoidable. That is one reason to hire a consulting firm. Preferred CFO is happy to help challenge untested assumptions. Please call Preferred CFO for our assistance. We are excited to help.