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Decision Making
Decision Making
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A devil's advocate takes the opposing viewpoint to enrich the debate and develop ideas

Chapter 5 Personas are specific roles that can encourage different types of thinking

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The most well-known persona used for decision making is the role of the devil’s advocate or Advocatus Diaboli. It was an official position within the Catholic church. The job of the devil’s advocate was to argue against the sainthood of candidates by uncovering evidence of unsaintly behavior. The role has retained its character of contrarianism, but can now be applied to any challenge. The objective is to encourage dissent and contrarian thinking by giving someone the formal role of arguing against a position. Appointing a devil’s advocate ensures that no single position dominates the discussion and encourages the development of additional alternatives.

Unfortunately, the phrase “let me play devil’s advocate here” is often invoked by people wanting to disagree with an idea they don’t like. The purpose of the role is not to be an idea killer. It is to find weak points that can be addressed to make ideas better. To ensure the role of devil’s advocate is used constructively, it makes sense to:

  1. Explicitly appoint a devil’s advocate, rather than hope one will emerge.
  2. Constructively raise tough questions, stress-testing ideas, but not killing them.
  3. Keep the role active throughout the process rather than just at the end of a discussion, when it may be too late.

The devil’s inquisitor is an alternative to a devil’s advocate that only asks questions instead of actively arguing the opposite case.

Sources & Segments

Article

Decisions Without Blinders

Social science research has shown that without realizing it, decision makers ignore certain critical information.

the phenomenon of bounded awareness—when cognitive blinders prevent a person from seeing, seeking, using, or sharing highly relevant, easily accessible, and readily perceivable information during the decision-making process. "The information that life serves is not necessarily the information that one would order from the menu," notes Dan Gilbert of Harvard University's psychology department, "but like polite dinner guests and other victims of circumstance, people generally seem to accept what is offered rather than banging their flatware and demanding carrots."

It's important to note that bounded awareness differs from information overload, or having to make decisions with too much information and too little time. Even when spared a deluge of information and given sufficient time to make decisions, most individuals still fail to bring the right information into their conscious awareness at the right time.

Bounded awareness can occur at various points in the decision-making process. First, executives may fail to see or seek out key information needed to make a sound decision. Second, they may fail to use the information that they do see because they aren't aware of its relevance. Finally, executives may fail to share information with others, thereby bounding the organization's awareness.

Fortunately, people can learn to be more observant of changes in their environment, which will help to remove their decision-making blinders.

The most disturbing evidence comes from Richard Clarke's account of the events of September 11 and 12, 2001. Clarke, the antiterrorism czar at the time, claims in his book Against All Enemies that on the night of September 11, he was directed by then–National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to go home for a few hours of sleep. When he returned to work the next morning, Clarke reports, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were discussing the role that Iraq must have played in the attack. We now know that this overly narrow assessment was wrong, but in the months that followed, the Bush administration conducted a motivated search to tie Iraq to 9/11 and terrorism.

The most disturbing evidence comes from Richard Clarke's account of the events of September 11 and 12, 2001. Clarke, the antiterrorism czar at the time, claims in his book Against All Enemies that on the night of September 11, he was directed by then–National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to go home for a few hours of sleep. When he returned to work the next morning, Clarke reports, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were discussing the role that Iraq must have played in the attack. We now know that this overly narrow assessment was wrong, but in the months that followed, the Bush administration conducted a motivated search to tie Iraq to 9/11 and terrorism.

Generating contradictory evidence should be part of everyone's job. But one way to integrate this form of thinking is to assign a "devil's inquisitor" role to a member of the group. This is not the same as a devil's advocate, who argues against the status quo. By asking questions instead of arguing an alternate point of view, the devil's inquisitor pushes people to look for evidence outside their bounds of awareness. Moreover, this role can be comfortably worn by those who are reluctant to take on the majority; it gives them a safe way to contribute.

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How to Play Devil's Advocate

Article

The Use of Devil's Advocates in Strategic Decision Making