While the name doesn't justify its key role in a team setting, the devil's advocate may just be the growing pains needed to reach great heights.
At Mäd, we highly value the importance of having a cross-functional team. However, it's not as simple as pairing one team member with another and expecting them to conjure up great work.
Two problematic scenarios can commonly emerge.
Either your team members are disagreeable. Or, your team members are too agreeable (at least on the surface). As paradoxical as it sounds, the second scenario is as doomed as the first to lead to a dead-end of ideas and productivity.
Silence is not golden; in fact, it's gloomy. Every team member's contribution is vital in teams, even though it may lead to conflicts. It is completely normal and healthy for team members to disagree on a particular idea or topic because it challenges the team to evaluate and improve their options. Healthy disagreements should be encouraged in a team setting to make the most out of their decision-making process. A person who challenges the team's decision-making is often referred to as a devil's advocate.
A devil's advocate is a person who expresses a contentious opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments.
You need balance, to know when to apply healthy pressure and challenge decisions productively. Positive intentions are key; aiming for improvements means avoiding complicity.
Being a devil's advocate can prove unpopular, as it's easy to offend or annoy those holding whatever view or practise you're challenging. However, it is much more beneficial for a team to identify potential issues internally. By exploring conflicting ideas, work can be strengthened against any particular pain points or likely issues- it's better to discuss and prepare for opposing variables in advance, than face them in the public eye after many wasted hours of work.
In a group project, team members spend most of their time together, which inevitably leads them to develop a groupthink mindset.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.
Groupthink prioritises harmony, often ignoring the fact that conflict can be extremely healthy for productivity. The role of devil's advocate is to ensure idea's are sound, by interrogating the thought processes behind them—especially compared to direct alternatives.
Note that by proper discussion and healthy analysis of an idea, a team can become more aligned and confident in their decisions.
How To Be A Devil's Advocate.
Ideally, there should be one devil's advocate in your team to make sure that you're not overlooking any complications that can easily be prevented. These are some tips that you need to fulfil this role:
At least one team member needs to be confident in taking on the devil's advocate role. Again, this need not be conflict for the sake of it. We could muse that the role is that of an 'idea auditor', obsessed with ensuring decisions are thoughtful and made without complacency.
To achieve this, one should consider the points:
Offer Alternative Ideas.
The key to breaking the groupthink bubble clouding the team's decision-making is to suggest novel ideas.
A team may agree on a suggested decision or idea, if it appears to solve the problem or requirement, it'll likely be agreed upon and actionables made. However, this is where a devil's advocate should offer up challenges to encourage the team to both explore other options and ensure their decision is truly robust.
Attack The Ideas, Not The Individual.
It is important to keep in mind that being a devil's advocate doesn't mean arguing for the sake of having arguments. It's goal isn't to attack your fellow team members.
When introducing a discussion to the table, a devil's advocate has to make sure that their arguments are reasonable and valid.
Any arguments should be framed in a way that justifies how the proposed ideas may be flawed, and why the team might consider other options.
Being negative for the sake of being negative is unhelpful, exhausting, and can be disrespectful to those trying to make positive change. Therefore, 'playing' devils advocate has to be a helpful exercise with positive outcomes in mind.
Prioritize The Team Agenda.
Although a devil's advocate role is to find flaws in the team's decision-making process, they must prioritize the team agenda over their own.
Their decisions are made in the best interests of the team to ensure that the team is reaching goals effectively, in both quality and efficiency.
Know When To Stop.
A devil's advocate can be quick to find flaws to challenge their team to make better decisions, yet it is equally important for them to know when to stop pushing back.
The role is to push the team further, to challenge their thought processes. It should not reach the point where you start to annoy other team members and appear to be acting against the team.
Alternate The Role.
If the same person is always the devil's advocate in the team, everybody will always turn to that person and expect them to disagree in the discussion.
Being the person to always contradict decisions can lead to isolation. Unhealthy disagreements can give rise to stronger ideas, but to reduce long-term conflict or sour feelings, it is recommended that team members take turn in donning the 'idea-auditor' hat.
Allowing each team member to take a turn at being a devil's advocate will lead to improved decision making, problem solving, and lateral thinking skills.
While the devil's advocate is often misunderstood as someone who likes to stir up conflicts, they may be an angel in disguise.
We've claimed before that common sense isn't so common, and it's easy for individuals to become overly agreeable with whatever the majority of their peers (or bosses) think. Being able to develop a diverse mental toolkit allows teams to analyse their ideas more effectively, and future-proof their decisions with more aligned clarity. If an idea can hold up against conflicting scenarios, alternatives, and potential criticisms, then the team will be much more confident proceeding with their decision.
Most importantly, being negative for the sake of it is not helpful. When challenging anything, aim to be helpful and thoughtful. Seek the common goal of achieving better, together.
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