In Defense of the Devil’s Advocate

One of my favourite parts of agency life is getting the chance to collaborate with a bunch of really smart people on a daily basis. Whether it’s my colleagues (who I learn from every single day) or clients, every day sees at least a couple of discussions from which I learn something completely new.

In the face of this constant flow of ideas coming from these people send me, I tend to play another role: that of devil’s advocate.

Reading Kyle Flaherty‘s excellent (and now ex-)blog, he listed several reasons why he often plays the contrarian:

“I do it for one of three other reasons:

  1. To determine if you REALLY believe what you just said;
  2. To introduce another line of thinking that ultimately will shape your thinking;
  3. To determine if I REALLY believe what you just said”

Wikipedia defines a devil’s advocate as:

“In common parlance, a devil’s advocate is someone who takes a position he or she disagrees with for the sake of argument. This process can be used to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure.”

Asking tough questions won’t always make you popular, but nonetheless I think it’s an important role for every team to fill, whether one person or the team as a whole fulfils it. It’s not a role to play for the sake of it – it’s a vital part of team dynamics. Here are six reasons why:

  • Sound strategic development: It’s all too easy to let tactics drive a strategy. That’s like letting the cart lead the horse. I think it’s important to ensure that a strategy doesn’t get formed around a bunch of tactics – that tactical ideas are filtered through a mesh made-up of carefully considered objectives, audiences and considerations.
  • Staying on that strategy: Good public relations programs are strategic. They link with the company’s business objectives, sync with it’s target audiences, consider the organization’s external influences… all of the things I discussed in my eBook on communications planning. Sometimes we have good ideas which don’t fit the strategy. It’s important to identify those cases.
  • Ensuring measurement is considered: I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that clients are more and more interested in measurement recently, likely due to a scarcity in resources in this economy (we could debate the measurement of a TV spot, or a magazine/newspaper ad, but that’s for another post). That means we need to build measurement into our programs from the ground-up, and a simple MRP report may not suffice.
  • Avoiding groupthink: It’s all too easy, in any group, to avoid conflict and agree with everything to make life easier. This rarely has a happy ending, as ideas end up poorly considered and half-baked. Asking the right questions can help to avoid this.
  • Convincing others: Some ideas are well thought-through. Others are off the top of someone’s head. Both have an important place in brainstorming sessions (which is not the time or place for playing the devil’s advocate), but only one has a place in a communications strategy. Getting people to think their ideas through helps, at the same time, to narrow ideas down to the good ones.
  • Convincing myself: I often take convincing before I “see the light” of a new idea. I need to look at things from multiple angles; to see how they fit in with other approaches; to consider how multiple stakeholders will view them. In order to reach that comfort level, I ask the questions that I can’t answer myself.

The role of devil’s advocate isn’t an easy (or necessarily popular) one. You’re asking tough questions, and you can sometimes find yourself saying “yes, but” when others are all gung-ho. A few tips for reducing the pain:

  • Be constructive – don’t be “that guy” – don’t just shoot ideas down. Ask questions constructively.
  • Don’t do it just for the sake of it – if you’re convinced and an idea is well thought-out, your job is already done.
  • Explain yourself – explain what you’re getting at with questions, so people understand why you’re asking.

What do you think? Do you play this role? What tips would you offer on playing it more effectively?

28 Responses toIn Defense of the Devil’s Advocate

  • I was hoping you’d be on the side of the devil’s advocate when I saw your tweet. I do it all the time. You’ve gotta look at things from all angles. Good post.

  • Dave,

    Your post raises a good point. It’s easy to agree with someone’s idea – it’s the unpopular choice to ask the tough questions. And while I agree that it’s necessary to play the role of devil’s advocate, it’s not always easy in a PR agency. When I was at an agency I was in the most junior position – and in that case, it wouldn’t have been easy to hear an idea from a senior person and say “yes, but…” There were definitely times I saw holes in an idea or wondered if the tactic was in line with the strategy, but didn’t feel it was my place to ask the tough questions.
    Maybe if I had I would have been applauded – but it’s more likely that I would have been shot daggers.


    • Erin – as long as it’s done in the right spirit – constructively, and with the intention of producing the best outcome rather than just for the sake of disagreeing, then I’d applaud it.

      It depends to some extent on the company culture as to whether everyone can feel able to ask these questions. One of the great things about TFC is the lack of hierarchy in this kind of thing – we encourage everyone to come to the table with their thoughts and ideas, whatever their position, so everyone is able to contribute.

  • Great perspective, Dave. Another role of the devil’s advocate is to stimulate the idea flow and to push team members to take ideas/concepts a next step. Sometimes the discussion will identify more opportunities, and sometimes, as you suggested, it will identify weaknesses.

    Erin, to your point, I disagree – asking a tough question isn’t necessarily unpopular. It may depend on the team dynamic, but in my experience, those asking the tough questions are often the most respected members of the group!

  • david (digitaljoy)
    ago11 years

    i consider my “need” to play devils advocate my biggest strength and my biggest weakness. Happily i have matured into a mellower, less hostile, more constructive approach to the role. I think (hope) my clients and team are better for it.

  • Dave, I like this post. In the law, I’m always advocating! I always question my clients to make sure they’ve got their story straight, are telling the truth, and haven’t forgotten anything. I do it in my administrative/running jobs, too. It is tough when there is a chain of command involved though. Sometimes no matter how constructive you try to be, some people do not want to hear anything but confirmation of the status quo.

    Hope all is well and that you are getting some runs in!

  • I definitely think that a strong contrarian perspective is vital for any efficient/successful team or community…something we could use more of on occasion in the SM community.

    The key point that I found in your post was to be constructive. Are you just being negative, or are you providing opposing opinions in order to effect the conversation positively. It can be a fine line sometimes.

  • Are you sure about that, Dave?

    Just teasing….

    Groupthink is an easy thing to have happen, especially inside a cohesive organization where people work well together. You can easily end up with a poor decision on your hands because it seemed like the right decision at the time if no one else is questioning it.

    If there is no natural devil’s advocate in the group, it is a good idea for the meeting chair to designate one in advance.

    I also take on the role of asking questions. Why are we doing it this way? Just because it has always been done this way is not good enough. I end up opening lots of “cans of worms”, things that people have avoided addressing over time. It’s a lot of fun, too. 😉


  • Sonya Goldman
    ago11 years

    Hi Dave,
    Excellent. I agree with you. I’ve tended in the past to be the sunshine maiden introducing new ideas and having to face down the dogged contrarian. That’s been uncomfortable, but you’ve reminded me how valuable it is. It also reminds me that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives on any subject. Happy Wednesday to you.

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