University of Wisconsin–Madison

Problem Solving: The Devil May be in This Little Detail

Have you ever used the expression, “To play devil’s advocate…,” or know others who do?

We can all play roles as we solve problems in our work, and “devil’s advocate” is one such role. It may not be the best role, however, if you’re trying to solve problems innovatively.

In the HR Competencies Cohort, we use an excerpt from the book, Ten Faces of Innovation, which offers strategies for “Beating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity throughout Your Organization.” It was written by Tom Kelley who is in charge of marketing at IDEO, a global design company associated with Stanford University’s Institute of Design (the “”) founded by his brother, David Kelley.

According to Tom Kelley:

The role of the devil’s advocate is nearly universal in business today. It allows individuals to step outside themselves and raise questions and concerns that effectively kill new projects and ideas, while claiming no personal responsibility. Nothing is more potent in stifling innovation.

Sentiment against the use of the phase, “devil’s advocate,” was echoed in a recent LinkedIn post, “How to Disagree at Work,” which highlighted Berkeley psychologist Charles Nemeth’s work:

‘Just to play devil’s advocate…’ suggests you don’t really believe in your argument. A better option for fighting groupthink is unearthing an authentic dissenter: find people who genuinely disagree and invite them into the conversation. If you’re that dissenter, drop the devil’s advocate language and try ‘I want to raise a perspective we haven’t considered….’

Why is this important to HR?

It is our job to ensure that voices are heard—in everything from search and screen committees to employee relations issues, as well as in our current Title and Total Compensation Project. We play a critical role in ensuring that there are opportunities for input and feedback, especially when there are complex problems to solve. This is particularly important when there are dissenting viewpoints.

Nemeth points out in his research, Devil’s advocate versus authentic dissent: stimulating quantity and quality, that dissent is critical for avoiding premature decision-making and pressures to conform despite lack of sufficient information. In other words, dissent generates better and more creative solutions.

That said, Nemeth’s highlights research also suggests that dissenters are disliked (which incentivizes conformity), “even when [the dissenter] has stimulated better and more creative thought (Nemeth & Wachtler, 1983).” This is because dissenters question the majority, which can generate conflict.

Perhaps the phrase, “devil’s advocate,” originated to help the dissenter avoid conflict while offering divergent ideas. Nemeth’s study shows, however, that the use of this phrase cripples creativity.

So what are we to do?

Tom Kelley suggests that we choose to play other roles such as the Cross-Pollinator, Director, or Experience Architect when we disagree, because these and the other roles he mentions in Ten Faces of Innovation are more conducive to innovation, creativity and solving complex problems.

Check out the book at no cost from the UW-Library, or watch an overview of the roles in this less than five-minute video, Reflection on the Ten Faces of Innovation. You can also Google “ten faces of innovation” for many more videos.

Did you find what you need?