Playing devil’s advocate

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” … the Devil’s Advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today.” (Tom Kelley, The Ten Faces of Innovation)

Anyone who has worked in Corporate Land will be familiar with that sinking feeling. You’ve pitched your great idea to the members of the board or your team at the monthly meeting. There’s the briefest of pauses as your last hopeful words leave your lips. From the far end of the table, someone smiles in a superior way and pipes up: “If I could just play devil’s advocate for a moment …” You know that they are about to launch into a stinging attack on your newborn baby of an idea and kill it stone dead within moments, rejoicing in your ritual humiliation as they go. Others may feel encouraged to join in the devil’s advocate game, scoring brownie points left, right and centre as you wilt like the Wicked Witch of the North into a heap on the floor. It’s a bloodsport in some organisations.

How many brilliant ideas must evaporate into the ether every day? How much creative thinking gets smothered at birth with a giant pillow of negativity?

Critical thinking has long been seen as the sharpest weapon in the intellectual toolbox of business. It’s what every MBA student learns. Dissect and analyse ideas rigorously.

However, a different type of thinking is required to allow creativity to flourish. Yes, managers must still analyse. But they must also learn to synthesise, particularly when they have a team of diverse bright sparks to facilitate.

Learning to say ‘yes, and …’ rather than ‘yes, but …’ to a newborn idea makes all the difference. Not all the ideas will reach full maturity (most won’t), but at least they get to see the light of day. Heard and encouraged, no-one stops contributing new thoughts having been burnt to a crisp by the devil’s advocate once too often.

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