Design great Tom Kelley once called the devil’s advocate the single greatest threat to innovation because a devil’s advocate encourages idea wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective. Once those dangerous floodgates burst open, they can quickly drown a new initiative in negativity.
It’s true. Your devil’s advocate will introduce a bump or two into the smooth path of your fundraising and marketing groupthink. There’s just no way to avoid it.
But don’t despair — I’d argue that those bumps can be hugely important, and I’m in good company here:
“Decisions … are made well only if based on conflicting views, the dialogue between different points of view, the choice between different judgments,” management guru Peter Drucker writes in “The Effective Executive.”
Foe to friend
There’s no way to escape the occasional devil’s advocate as you move fundraising and marketing agendas forward. Here’s the approach that works best when the horns of a devil’s advocate emerge on one of our client organizations’ teams:
1. Open your arms and your mind. Despite the pain of facing a devil’s advocate, the product of the mash-up frequently is better than the original idea. Be proactive: Look back on previous sparring for the useful takeaways, and keep that value add in mind — even when you feel like screaming in frustration.
“I include [the devil’s advocates] early in the idea stage because they help produce a robust result,” says nonprofit consultant Doug Watson. “They also become the greatest salesperson for the idea as they see the other sides better than those who are just hesitant.”
2. Acknowledge the downside of conformity. You want to move quickly and smoothly to implement your idea or program, but you’ve seen that rushing to approval or release ends up a complete disaster or, at the very least, generates diminished results. The squeaky wheel can be your most valuable advisor. Listen up!
3. Encourage debate. Dissent doesn’t always come when you want it, but your openness to other ideas shapes the environment as one that’s productive, rather than acrimonious.
4. Pick your battles. You’ll lose ugly and often when you go head to head on every pushback. Focus on the fights (aka discussions) that really matter.
5. Depersonalize the difference of opinion, maintaining focus on the project goal. Avoid personal pronouns.
6. Leave your fear at the door. Stay calm and confident. Devil’s advocates tend to pounce when they see weakness.
7. Mind the power of three. Ensure that it’s not just you and the devil’s advocate slugging it out. That’s the quickest path to an ugly standoff. An odd number of discussion participants eases decision making. Three (or five or …) is a balanced tripod, rather than a tug of war.
8. Embrace co-creation with a thank-you. You have it, whether you want it or not. Thank the devil’s advocate for testing the feasibility of your idea.
9. Have proof points ready — models from competitive and colleague organizations, stats, stories from peers in the field. Validation trumps opinion every time.
“A couple of years ago I was invited to be on a panel about social media at a managers’ retreat with our HR and IT folks, both of whom were very wary of what was a very new thing at the time,” says Bobbie Lewis, former director of communications at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. “The week before, I had attended a wonderful workshop focused on why organizations should allow employees access to social media on the job.
“I came to our retreat armed with objective, specific stats and stories (versus my colleagues’ vague worries) that opened their minds and built their confidence,” Lewis adds. “I blew them out of the water.”
10. Redirect: Ask the devil’s advocate for his alternative solution to the problem he voices. It’s far easier to punch holes in someone else’s idea than to come up with a good one of your own, but he might come up with something great while you’ve fulfilled your responsibility to listen.
11. Turn devil’s advocacy on its head. Assign someone to ask the tough questions in all major decision making.
Dissenters are frequently hated, squashed or ignored. So share the wealth. Rotate the role of taking an opposing point of view to a different team member each time you face a significant decision. But skip those individuals who aren’t likely to push back on groupthink.
Have fun with this — to depersonalize and add a laugh — by having the devil of the day wear a wacky hat.
Follow this 11-step path to turn your devil’s advocate into a productive partner. Let me know how it goes!
Nancy Schwartz is president of Nancy Schwartz & Co. and author of the Getting Attention! blog. She also is a member of the FundRaising Success Editorial Advisory Board. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org