In our pre-term class on Leadership in Organizations, we spent a few hours on personal and organizational decision making. A recommended tactic was to assign a team member to play “devil’s advocate” on all important decisions. This move is designed to eliminate confirmation bias and “yes-and-yes” decisions.
As we spent a lot of time discussing the importance of a devil’s advocate, I thought I’d share the story of the how the devil’s advocate came to be – with due thanks to Decisive by Messrs Chip and Dan Heath.
For centuries, the Catholic Church made use of a “devil’s advocate” in canonization decisions (i.e., in deciding who would be named a saint). The devil’s advocate was known inside the church as the promotor fidei—the “promoter of the faith”— and his role was to build a case against sainthood and, thus, force the decision maker to consider 2 points of view.
Pope John Paul II eliminated the office in 1983, ending 400 years of tradition. Since then, tellingly, saints have been canonized at a rate about 20 times faster than in the early part of the twentieth century.
So, if you have team members and friends who frequently play devil’s advocate, encourage them. And, I hope you will consider assigning a person or group of people to play devil’s advocate on all important decisions.