|The role of the Advocatus
Diaboli, the Devil's Advocate, is often seen as
restraining and destructive. One should avoid having
such a person in a team.
Looking at the risks of group decisions, it
is probably one of the most important team roles.
Is the AD Team Role Destructive?
The Advocatus Diaboli in Business Environments
Oliver F. Lehmann, PMP
"Devil's Advocate: The definition of this role is a
project team member that takes up the contrary view just for the
sake of argument and not on the arguments merits (if any). This role
is negative because it often frustrates and disrupts effective
communication and discourages people from participating."
Advanced Project Management Workbook, published in 2005 by
Washington State Department of Transport
A very popular view on the Advocatus Diaboli, the Devil's
Advocate: We don't want him. He frustrates team members, destroys
discussions, and slows down progress. The Advocatus diaboli is
regarded as a destructive team role in a list together with
unfriendly to the project and its objectives
does not actively participate
is more interested in personal benefit
interrupts effective communications
tries to gain control over the discussion
The influential British Business thinker and trainer Dr. Meredith
Belbin, who did a lot of fundamental work on team roles, didn't
even mention the role of the Devil's Advocate or describe a similar
one. His model consists of roles called
inventive, but often in a world of his or her own
wholehearted, outgoing, but also often too cheerful and
without long-term discipline
settled, in no doubt, but may be a control freak
energetic and forceful, sometimes offensive
thoughtful, considered, maybe not inspiring
win-win oriented and tactful, sometimes not decisive
controlled, consistent and action-oriented, possibly slow
meticulous and timely, may have difficulties to delegate
hard working, dedicated, may see only immediate tasks and
focuses on technical solutions
So, the Devil's Advocate is commonly refused or ignored, but it
would have been a good idea in many projects to have such a
The role of the Advocatus Diaboli - or in a more official
language: the Promotor fidei - was established in the Catholic
church in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V. His function was in the processes
of beatification and canonization to gather all evidence against the
person's honoring. No important act in the process of beatification
or canonization was valid unless performed in the formal presence of
the Advocatus Diaboli.
The office of the Advocatus Diaboli was abolished by Pope John
Paul II in 1983.
The Abilene paradox and the
Sunk cost dilemma are two
examples how decision making can go wrong, especially group
There is a popular belief that group decisions may not be a
problem if there is respect between the participants in the
decision. It was Jerry Harvey's merit to prove that this respect may
even be the reason for failure.
A modern version of the Devil's Advocate can definitively help
organizations stepping into these pitfalls. In a modern project
environment, some rules should apply, quite similar to those in old
||Formal presence during strategic decisions
Decisions made in the absence of the DA should not be
seen as valid.
Sometimes, decision makers see themselves as "positive
thinking", "enthusiastic" and "flamboyant", but their
behavior should rather be regarded as "irrational
exuberant*, ignoring looming threats.
||Preparation to interrupt and ask
Long monologues and speeches during meetings tend to tire
the audience and make it more likely that decisions will be
accepted which under normal circumstances may have been
rejected. Especially when they are continued into lunch
||Dedication to numbers
Not all good decisions can be made based on numbers and a
quantifiable business case. But those decisions which should
be made without such a basis need additional explanation and
||Dedication to risk management
The Sunk cost dilemma shows how an organization can be
driven into crisis through a lack of risk management during
||Dedication to quality management
Whatever decisions are made in business, they can
influence processes and their outcomes. An Advocatus Diaboli
should ensure that all information on these impacts is
collected and regarded during decision making.
||Dedication to documentation
Scope creep - a discrepancy between documentations and
project reality - can make it impossible to make
well-founded decisions. The Devil's Advocate should insist
in complete and accurate documentation, which reflects the
latest status of the project.
||Appreciation for a system
Many decisions look good when one's horizon is narrow The
own objectives seem attainable, as long as one doesn't think
about others. The Advocatus Diaboli should insist on
consistency on detail level as well as on the big picture.
||Appreciation for roles and responsibilities
Many decisions are made by the wrong people: By a
micro-managing boss or a low-level manager exceeding who is
not sufficiently authorized. Or simply by the wrong manager
in the wrong project or business unit, or at a wrong time.
The Advocatus Diaboli should insist that it is the right
person or group who does the decision.
Whoever is interested, involved or can wield influence,
the Advocatus Diaboli should make sure that no stakeholder
is unidentified or neglected.
||Black hat thinking
Thinking about thinking - the Advocatus Diaboli should
scrutinize the entire decision making process and assess its
appropriateness for the specific situation.
*: The term Irrational exuberance
was actually coined in 1996 by Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the
US Federal Reserve Board. Mr. Greenspan was only in rare moments an
Advocatus Diaboli, but these were the moments when big investors
re-validated their assets.
By the way: We firmly believe
that every Devil's Advocate should have Insight Tree as a tool to
support the individual in the course of its job.