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?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.