Teams often struggle to make good decisions, dragging down their team’s performance. In fact, one of the key predictors of team performance is the decision-making process employed by the team. But, many of us don’t use any structured approach to solve problems and make decisions, and our teams suffer from that lack of structure.
Further, I’ve written previously about how important conflict is to effectively analyze arguments and make great decisions as a team. After all, the gains teams offer only come through the rubbing of ideas against other ideas. Here’s an easy process – called the Devil’s Advocacy Technique – you can use to program healthy conflict into a group discussion.
The Devil’s Advocacy Technique involves a group developing a solid argument for a recommended course of action, then subjecting that recommendation to an in-depth, formal critique. The critique calls into question the assumptions and recommendations presented to the devil’s advocate, and attempts to show why the recommendations should not be adopted. Through repeated criticism and revision, the approach leads to mutual acceptance of a recommendation.
Because good recommendations based on solid assumptions will survive even the most forceful and effective criticism, this approach is likely to yield sound judgments or recommendations. Here are 7 steps to follow in using the devil’s advocate approach to solve thorny problems:
- Identify a problem needing group analysis and decision making.
- Divide the group or team into two equally-sized subgroups. Assign one subgroup to play devil’s advocate (DA subgroup) and the other to develop an affirmative recommendation (AR group).
- After separating into subgroups, instruct the AR group to develop a set of recommendations and build an argument for them, supported by all key assumptions, facts, and data that underlie them. That group writes out the recommendations, assumptions, facts, and data on a white board or large piece of paper. Meanwhile, instruct the DA subgroup to prepare for their critique by discussing the case and identifying critical assumptions, data, and facts the other group might miss.
- Then, join both subgroups together. Instruct the AR subgroup to present its recommendations and assumptions to the devil’s advocate subgroup. The DA subgroup critiques the recommendations, attempting to uncover all that is wrong with the recommendations, assumptions, facts, and data and explaining why the recommendations should not be adopted.
- Then, separate the subgroups again so that the AR group revises its recommendations to answer the critiques, while the DA group works to find more critiques that would strengthen the recommendation.
- Repeat Steps 4 and 5 until both subgroups can accept the recommendations, assumptions, and data.
- Once both subgroups agree on a recommended solution, move forward and enact the recommendations.
It’s amazing the enormous difference following a careful process can make for a team.
In your next team meeting, give this process a shot as your team makes a key decision, and see how you can benefit from the structure.
To learn more about the devil’s advocacy technique, check out an academic journal article that reports on how I used this technique with a university student services work group.
Check out these other group facilitation techniques/processes you can use with your team for the following tasks: