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:
- Explicitly appoint a devil’s advocate, rather than hope one will emerge.
- Constructively raise tough questions, stress-testing ideas, but not killing them.
- 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.