A Prayer for the Devil’s Advocate

22 March 2016, posted by Alf Rehn

On the Importance of Skeptics in the Innovation Process

It may be one of the most misunderstood job titles of all times, and often referred to as not even fully real. You’ll hear people say things like “let me play Devil’s advocate” or “if I was to be Devil’s advocate on this, I’d…”, implying that the job is make-believe or at least not something you’d want to be. Still, the advocatus diaboli was a very real, very important role. When the Roman Catholic Church looked into canonizing a person, i.e. declaring him or her a saint, the case for sainthood was argued by the Promotor of the Cause (also known as “God’s advocate). The Devil’s advocate (also known as Promotor of the Faith) maintained a skeptical position, looking for flaws in logic or character, and inquired into possible fraud in the case of miracles. The Church understood that this was an important role, and the canon lawyer who was chosen for this was often a highly respected, senior one. Interestingly, the position was all but abolished by Pope John Paul II, who then went on to produce saints on an industrial scale – almost 500 during his tenure.

What has this got to do with innovation, I hear you ask? A fair question, but hold tight, I have an answer. The Catholic Church might not be the most innovative organization in the world, but they do have some good ideas about debating things. The role of the advocatus diaboli was in effect to act as a bullshit detector, someone who had it as their job description to keep asking questions. And I would contend contemporary innovation needs this more than ever.

A good Devil’s advocate isn’t just a contrarian, or a critic, or difficult for the sake of being difficult. Rather, the role implies a desire to find the very best version of something, of wanting to make sure that no shortcuts had been taken. In the Church, the Promotor of the Faith took saints very seriously indeed. In fact, one could well say that this role required a greater belief in the importance of sainthood than ever that of those eager to canonize and be done with it. The role revolved around protecting the sanctity of the process, or not allowing it to be watered down or otherwise perverted.

In a contemporary organization, something similar is desperately needed. As the term “innovation” has become increasingly watered down, most anything that a company produces or does can (and will) these days be called one. In such a situation, skeptics of the kind the Devil’s advocate represented will be an increasingly important role.

Imagine an organization where there is one (or several, for a bigger organization) person who is tasked with challenging innovation initiatives, testing them for being more occupied with fancy talk than with actual value, and where there is a formal process in place to ensure that claims of “world-class” and “disruption” were properly assessed. In such an organization, the Devil’s advocate would be the role that ensured that the voice listened to would actually be that of the customer, not just what some manager claimed customer’s wanted.

Here, truly innovative projects would still be run, but this time stronger than before, as they would have had to face some tough questions – a trial by fire, if you wish. In fact, they’d be better resourced than before, as projects that focused more of surface and sounding right would have less chance to muscle in on the action. Here, those wanting to run an innovative project would have to prepare to debate a true believer in innovation, tasked with taking a skeptical position but at heart only wanting to save innovation from those who would do trivial things in its name.

So say a prayer for the Devil’s advocate, and be thankful for heartfelt critique and questions. Remember that skepticism is healthy, and if a project can be killed with just a few pointed questions, it probably wouldn’t have survived contact with reality either.

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