Dealing with the Devil’s Advocate

This topic has been churning in my head for a few months now, since I read an interesting article by Michael Schrage on how innovation gets killed by resistance

Then I came across an extract from Tom Kelley’s latest book – The Ten Faces of Innovation, where Tom captures the essence of the problem with his description of the Devil’s Advocate gambit:

“The pivotal meeting where you push forward a new idea or proposal you’re passionate about. A fast-paced discussion leads to an upwelling of support that seems about to reach critical mass. And then, in one disastrous moment, your hopes are dashed when someone weighs in with those fateful words: “Let me just play Devil’s Advocate for a minute…”

Having invoked the awesome protective power of that seemingly innocuous phrase, the speaker now feels entirely free to take pot shots at your idea, and does so with complete impunity. “

How many times have you been in meetings where the Devil’s Advocate decimated your idea or your colleague’s idea.

The other big problem with the group meeting is a variant of groupthink – when your idea is modified by the group to such an extent that it loses its entire meaning. Headrush wrote an interesting post on how to keep the sharp edges and avoiding groupthink.

Coming back to the Devil’s Advocate – how do we deal with him/her?

Kris Bordessa wrote a brilliant post titled “Banishing Negativity”  where she describes a very interesting technique  – don’t allow anyone to play devil’s advocate, but instead ask them to finagle the idea to solve the problem that he/she was going to point out in the idea.

One of my colleagues uses this technique in group meetings and it works extremely well. When someone tries to shoot down an idea with some objection, my colleague asks them to submit a counter-proposal which modifies the idea suggested by the other person. Aside from solving the Devil’s Advocate problem, it accomplishes another bigger thing – that of ending the meeting with an idea that is actionable for the entire group with assigned action items. Without this technique, at the end of the meeting you typically go out with no action plans because all the time was spent by the devil’s advocates squashing someone’s idea killing the productivity of the group not to speak of the morale.

The same technique was voiced recently by Renata Guizzardi (Via Mathemagenic):

There are two distinct ways to collaborate with someone one their research work: the ‘and’ way and the ‘but’ way. In the ‘and’ way, one focuses on the positive aspects of the ideas being presented, adding new insights on top of them. Conversely, in the ‘but’ way, one identifies the limitations of the proposed ideas, focusing solely on negative aspects. Although both ways are valid, there is a risk in taking the ‘but’ strategy, since looking at the obstacles before an idea is sufficiently mature may lead to a creativity block.

Let us seek the “And” way and let innovation blaze new trails.

Update: Dave of Communication Nation links to this post and per him a discussion developeth on his blog. Thanks Dave. Ganesh’s Constructive Contrarian in our blog and Riyaz’s Silent Dissenter are two new terms added to the discussion. Enjoy. Patrix of Desipundit linked to this post as well. Thanks Patrix.


1. Headrush also carried a Devil’s Advocate post which advocated Tom Kelley’s multiple persona approach to deal with it. While that approach may work, I think it is a bit complicated for it to be practical for everyone.

2. Abiline Paradox – another variant of groupthink where the group acts in a way that is a direct opposite of their individual preferences!

3. Gary Neilson+Bruce Pasternack+Karen Van Nuys’s description of a Passive-Aggressive Organization in the HBR –  where meetings are very cordial, everyone agrees with everyone else, but nothing actually happens.



  1. Anonymous said March 9, 2006, 12:50 am:


    The “and” and “but” thing applies to other areas of management too – such as a manager providing feedback/review to his/her employees. If a +ve feedback, is always followed by a “but”, the employee keeps waiting for the “but” in the conversation, and all +ve feedback is washed under.

    w.r.t devil’s advocate – I believe it has its time and place. It can be used as a technique to generate more ideas. Provocation, for example, can be used as a tool to get one out of his/her comfort zone to generate new ideas. For more on this read Edward De Bono’s book/articles on Lateral Thinking.

    I understand your point about group thinking variant – a group hijacking an idea and modifying it. However, a constructive contrarian view never hurts, especially if it leads to generation of more ideas or honing of existing one.


  2. Anonymous said March 9, 2006, 4:48 am:


    You are right. I guess i got a bit carried awa by bashing the Devil’s advocate too much. I agree it can be useful sometimes. The problem I am trying to point out is – today people assume this persona in a more destructive fashion than a constructive one. Also, I believe Kris Bordessa’s method that i linked to helps the constructive contrarian – that of constructively modifying the idea presented to overcome the problem that the devil’s advoacte in you is able to come up with.

  3. Anonymous said January 28, 2007, 9:19 am:


    I enjoyed this entry immensely and would like permission to use it for a reading comprehension activity for my students. One of their tasks is to have a conversation with a colleague who goes too far in playing the devil’s advocate at meetings.


  4. Anonymous said April 9, 2007, 2:18 am:

    Thanks Pamela. You made my day. Yes, you have the permission. BTW, all the content on this blog is under creative commons non-commerical license. So any non-commercial use is fair game.