Uniformity of viewpoints in your team can lead to incorrect decisions. If groups are cohesive and uniform, you risk making terrible choices. There are plenty of examples in history and business of Group Think: The 2003 Iraq invasion, Swissair's failure, and the introduction of New Coca-Cola.
Many teams rationalise their decisions and have the illusion that their group
is invulnerable. Their integrity is considered beyond doubt. Consequently,
outsiders and adversaries are stereotyped, and their opinions are not listened to. A dominant idea can now lead to blocking alternatives. Also, new information which might point in a different direction is disregarded, leading to disaster.
One method to counter Group Think is to introduce a Devil’s Advocate. This is someone who is a dissenter and will question the position of the majority.
The term Devil’s Advocate has its origins in the Catholic Church already way back in 1587. If an individual was proposed for beatification or canonisation by the Church (the official admission of a dead person into sainthood), the promotor, God’s Advocate, had to present all facts in favour of sainthood. A Devil’s Advocate, however, was assigned by the Church to submit evidence contrary to sainthood, after which a decision would be made.
In modern terms, a Devil’s Advocate will try to find everything wrong with the current idea. It could be someone who spontaneously stands up or someone who has been assigned to the role. This method is used in business and frequently in the military.
This technique can be very effective but can also lead to negative feelings towards this person. After all, trust in the team is perceived to be broken as there is a dissenter. And we don’t like critique, period.
However, this technique can lead to innovative insights and prevent major disasters. Introducing an assigned dissenter as a Devil’s Advocate is not always straightforward, though, as this is often seen as artificial and does not feel like honest criticism. Especially if the person believes in the original proposition in the first place.
Want to know more about effectively introducing a Devil’s Advocate into your team? Get in touch with us, and we will help you.
See also this article on Investopedia
Devil's advocate versus authentic dissent: stimulating quantity and quality (2001) by Nemeth, Brown and Rogers.