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Who Is The Devil’s Advocate, Anyway?

From Creating Passionate Users: Death by Devil’s Advocate:

We’ve all been in a meeting where a passionate idea is put forth but someone plays devil’s advocate and drains the life out of the room. Invoking “the awesome protective power” lets the devil’s advocate be incredibly negative and slash your idea to shreds, all while appearing not only innocent but reasoned, balanced, intelligent… all attributes loaded with business “goodness”. Whew! Thank GOD for the devil’s advocate, or we’d all be off blundering with our stupid ideas, oblivious to the insurmountable problems we were too clueless to see.

It’s easy to look at someone who sits in the corner of a blue-sky brainstorming session and does the real-world equivalent of threadcrapping and see them, as Kathy said, ripping the throat out of your infant idea. There probably are inveterate creativity-slayers, but I think a lot of it boils down to thinking styles and communication styles. So how do we make sense of devils’ advocates? Read on to find out.

Crazy Ned’s Whole Brain Theory

One of the resources that’s helped me a lot in understanding group process is Ned Herrmann’s Whole Brain Business Book. His theory describes four different thinking styles:

  • Analytical, or “Blue” thinkers: The people you go to when you need facts, data, quantitative analysis, or other rational information. Think Spock, but more grouchy and without the awesome eyebrows.
  • Sequential, or “Green” thinkers: The taskmasters, project managers, time budgeteers and fans of the <ol> element. People who get to a movie before the previews start.
  • Interpersonal, or “Red” thinkers: Group-huggers, touchy-feelies, back massagers, and perpetual boundary crossers. People who actually care how you’re doing.
  • Imaginative, or “Yellow” thinkers: Visionaries, conceptual artists, theorists (social, mainly), and other nogoodniks. Impossible to tie down, hard to understand. Speakers of gibberish.

Herrmann makes a lot of claims about how based in scientific data this stuff is, and associates these thinking styles with actual brain patterns or some such. Any theory of personality which has convenient quadrants smacks of the New Phrenology, but the fact that it’s not science doesn’t stop it from being useful. It’s a convenient abstraction which allows us to think about how groups work.

One big caveat to all this is that nobody is just a single color. We’re complicated creatures, and so much of who we are is dependent on where we are and what we’re doing. Air-horn-to-the-head Coda is much different than Tickle-fight-with-girlfriend Coda, and similarly the way I act in groups depends on who else is in the group and what the group is doing. I spend a lot of time in Blue, Green, and Yellow modes in general, but in groups I tend to drop back into Blue mode. Why? Because few other people can play that role, and if I see that the group needs a Spock–tag, I’m it.

Things Fall Apart

When a group’s communication isn’t working–when people aren’t clear about what they need from others in the group–the miscommunications will happen along these color-role lines. The nasty tone I used to describe the roles above become literal. Each thinking style will conflict with the other, mostly because of the Golden Rule: people in Red roles give other team members what a predominantly Red person would want. That’s fine, unless you’re Green, Yellow, or Blue, in which case you think that person needs to back up a foot and a half. Green folks need timelines and schedules and a linear order; a Yellow person would rather have a lobotomy, and so on.

For example, how many times have you heard or said this:

  • “What is her problem? She’s totally micromanaging. I feel like I need to get permission to think.”
  • “This needs to get done now, but he’s a total flake. He’s more interested in turning this into a social club.”
  • “He doesn’t care about the group. He just sits there until someone says something he can pick apart, and then he pounces on irrelevant details.”
  • “I can’t work with her. We’ve got two days to complete the whole proposal, and she wants to keep brainstorming.”

Sound familiar? Chances are, that’s both what you’ve said and what’s been said about you.

So Who Is The Devil’s Advocate?

Back to the real-life threadcrappers Kathy was talking about. We can look at the habitual devil’s advocates as the enemies of creativity, but that doesn’t provide us with any solutions beyond an axe handle to the dome. I propose that, in order to generate ideas about how to make devils’ advocates and creativity work together (read: since we’re not bashing them in the head and leaving them in a closet for the janitor to find), we need to understand why people play devil’s advocate.

Let us assume they don’t hate creativity. Let us assume, instead, that they are attempting to contribute in a well-meaning way, or that their vindictiveness is a result of feeling that what the other groups define as “creativity” is instead unproductive.

Let us assume the devils’ advocates are Blue and/or Green thinkers.

It can be very awkward to be play a Blue/Green role in a group, especially a creative group. Creative industries are generally the domain of Red and Yellow thinkers, and the addition of a Blue viewpoint (”But that wouldn’t work with X”) or a Green viewpoint (”That would take too long”) can seem like a bucket of cold water to people in Red and Yellow modes. From a Blue perspective, a comment about feasibility counts as productive input. A Blue perspective will automatically begin to analyze an idea, and try to see where it works and where it fails. Where it works doesn’t seem like something that needs to be discussed–it’s obviously self-evident–but where potential failure points are things that need to be discussed now.

From a Red or Yellow perspective, of course, someone pointing out the gap between the castle’s foundations and the ground seems like a thread-crapper. It feels discouraging, like a “soul-stealing, fear-based verbal attack,” as Kathy puts it. This, like any other miscommunication, can easily escalate: Red person says “Oh, let’s not think about that,” Blue person says “No, let’s,” and zany hi-jinks ensue.

So what’s a good response, as a person in a Red or Yellow role, to someone in a Blue or Green role poking holes in your idea?

Here is my solution: value their contribution.

When they ask whether or not something is possible, they’re thinking about solving a problem. Give them that problem to solve: ask them how what the answer to their question is. They’re part of a team, and if you give them something to work on, they’ll go to town. If you try to shoot down the necessity of asking “is this possible?” then things get vicious.

Blue/Green thinkers tend to leave coming up with ideas to the other colors, and really enjoy focusing on implementation. Nothing’s more fun than taking a good idea and putting legs on it; it’s one thing to have good ideas, Blue people say, it’s another to make good things. Playing down the necessity of asking the “hard questions” will simply prove to the Blue thinker that you aren’t serious about it, probably due to a lack of capacity. But if you understand what they’re trying to do, you can reframe their question and give them the pleasure of solving a tricky problem: “Geez, that’s a good question. What do you think? I know you’ve probably got a lot of ideas on problems like these, and we really need that kind of creative input from someone with your technical background.”

Best case scenario, you’ve converted a potential conflict into an alliance; worst case scenario, you’ve very nicely told someone to cowboy up or get off the horse. By understanding why people ask “nitpicky” questions and responding to need those people’s needs, you can preserve (and usually enhance) the creative energy of your team.

Update

In a trackback to Kathy’s post, Patrick Calahan at pcal.net says:

The article basically says that mean people take on the guise of devil’s advocate in order to destroy valuable ideas in their infancy, and that that’s a bad thing.

It’s not a bad thing; it’s an absolutely necessary thing. Everyone has stupid ideas, even very smart people. Those ideas need to be criticized quickly and efficiently. This isn’t to say you should be uncivil - it can be done respectfully and productively. And truly good and viable ideas will survive this criticism.

CPU’s Barney-the-Dinosaur approach to idea processing is not just infantilizing, it’s actually harmful. If you sit around and gladhand your colleagues about the potential of every random ill-formed-but-possibly-world-changing notion that pops out of their head, you’re never going to get anything done.

Yellow post, meet Blue post. This is a perfect example of both the Blue viewpoint (”you’re never going to get anything done”) and of the Blue response to questioning the necessity of asking the “hard questions.” This is exactly the dynamic I was describing. What Patrick is describing is that he feels his contribution is being devalued, and that what he brings to the table in a group is ignored.

Blogs are such a great labratory for conflicts.

2 Responses to “Who Is The Devil’s Advocate, Anyway?”

  1. Georgia Says:

    Coda,

    Where does the word “crazy” that preceeds Ned Herrmann’s name come from in your messaging? My question arrives with all due respect for Ned Herrmann and his break-through to such an elegant model that has enabled so many millions of people around the world to a place of “understanding”, which in-turn has ignited the release of so many more millions. And, that says little about what has been set into motion in the development of dimensions that have yet to be fully recognized, which all relate back to the impact of Ned’s life.

    I do not think a life time of gratitude by many generations would pay enough respect or provide enough recognition for the true value of his work and his contributions to the development of humanity and the living systems of our planet.

    And, I did enjoy the rest of your message.

  2. Coda Says:

    The “Crazy Ned’s Whole Brain Theory” wasn’t a crack at Ned Herrmann in particular, and I apologize if it offended you.

    I see Herrmann’s whole brain model as being an interesting tool, but it falls flat for me in a variety of ways, some of which are the fault of the model, some of which are the fault of its popular interpretation.

    First, it doesn’t take context into account. It describes certain dispositions as being independent of an individual’s social context, which I think is a mistake; my cognitive mode depends as much on my environment (e.g., programming, reading a novel, riding my bicycle, snuggling with my girlfriend, verbal confrontation with a motorist, etc.) as it does any kind of individual essence I have. Humans are social chameleons, in my opinion, and we take on the color of the social processes in which we exist.

    Second, it doesn’t take time into account. A person’s response to conflict in group situations is not consistent, and as a person’s stress levels rise, their tactics in the conflict will change. Personally, I start off as a conflict avoider–I try to remain uninvolved and distance myself from the conflict, or adopt an objective tone to indicate uninterest in involvement. Once it becomes obvious that I cannot avoid the conflict, and when I feel cornered, I adopt a competetive, agressive style. These may be essential traits of mine, they may be learned confict styles; it’s impossible to tell. The whole brain theory doesn’t really describe how a person moves from cognitive mode to cognitive mode, and the idea that we don’t change cognitive modes contradicts most of my personal experiences with people.

    Finally, and this is not the fault of Herrmann himself, the whole brain theory is interpreted by many as almost analogous to the four temperaments, which is unfortunate. I have no use for medieval classification systems, regardless of how they’re repackaged. Many people, after a brief exposure to the whole brain theory, tend to see it as a system of essential personality types, and certainly the class in which I was first exposed to it began to self-segregate into four camps, each replete with enemy-images of the other three.

    I guess I see the whole brain theory as one tool in a large toolbox when it comes to conflict resolution, as opposed to a grand, unifying theory. It’s another lens of analysis through which we can see social processes, and I’m of the opinion that overreliance on a single lens tends to produce myopia.

    And I’m glad you enjoyed the rest of the post.