Why You Need A Devil’s Advocate

This week, there is a pretty interesting situation unfolding in the world of social media. On Monday, an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review called “How to calculate the value of a like.” The article is authored by Dan Zarrella, who works for HubSpot, a software company that has gotten increasingly involved in inbound marketing over the last few years. There was a substantial backlash against what Zarrella put together. The formula he created is faulty in a lot of ways, but that is not really what we want to focus on today. What we want to focus on is a tweet that Zarrella posted in light of some of the criticism he was receiving on that platform. He said, “Months were spent working on this with a bunch of smart people.”

If you’ve ever worked on any kind of project over a long period of time – a website, product development, a marketing campaign, or anything else, you probably can relate to this kind of sentiment, especially if you’ve had to face harsh criticism upon the completion of the project. “But we worked really hard on this! And for a long time! You don’t understand all of the intricacies! You couldn’t possibly have noticed every little detail we put into that project!”

Here’s the problem with working with a small group of people on one thing over a long period of time. Whether you like to or want to, you develop a short-hand way of talking about what you’re doing. You develop the same perspective on what is going into the project or what is being taken out. And most importantly of all, you all are increasingly dedicated and loyal to what you are working on. The project, whatever it may be, has become your baby. You know and love everything about it, and when the time comes to launch it, you are expecting, whether you realize it or not, for everyone to feel exactly the same way.

A Dose of Reality

As it turned out, the article in Harvard Business Review was only the beginning of the story for Dan Zarrella and Hubspot. While the criticism continued to roll in via blog posts and Tweets, a blog post went up on the HubSpot site announcing a new product based on the information presented in the article in question. They clearly had carried a project to completion and had prepared for the launch, and they seemingly were unaware of the fact that their product might meet pretty hefty blowback. Their position is now an unenviable one. They have encountered a PR problem before the product even launched, and now the product launch is being overshadowed by having to defend it against all of the criticisms being published across the internet. That group of smart people Zarrella mentioned clearly needed to include a devil’s advocate – someone who would put him or herself in the shoes of potential critics. They needed someone who would point out the flaws that so many other people unaffiliated with the project found in a short period of time. They needed someone to judge the final product as if they did not have a stake in it.

What This Means For You

Regardless of what your job may be, this timeline of events carries an important lesson. Always, always incorporate a devil’s advocate into your project process. You might want to punch them after they persist in pointing out flaws, it’s true. Nobody likes to feel like their creative process is stifled. There are ways to keep forward momentum going while receiving productive criticism, however. If you’re working on a website, show it to somebody completely new to the project. Ask them to navigate the site. Ask them to search for something that should be easy to find. Only launch the site when you are confident anyone would be able to use the site the way it is intended.

If you are working on a new product, follow the same process. It doesn’t matter how smart the people are who are working with you. They carry a bias. Find someone who has no vested interest in the success of the product. Find someone who will be blatantly, painfully honest with you. Why? Because that is what you will receive from your industry. That is what you will get back from your customers. Is it not better to find the flaws before your product launches? Is it not better to prepare for possible problems and even prevent them?

We think so.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/steena/182220202/ via Creative Commons


17 comments on “Why You Need A Devil’s Advocate

  1. Well done. A valuable reminder for all of us. Incorporating a devil’s advocate is easy to overlook yet invaluable to do and can save one from landing in the soup, so to speak.

    • Thanks Allen.

      Yeah, it seems like people these days feel like they are due something because they are involved in a creative process. Honesty doesn’t seem too welcome, but in looking at what happened with this whole VOAL thing, I think it makes a good case for getting some bad news *before* you launch full throttle.

  2. Cold, hard, honest answers and suggestion are what we need for any kind of project. Yes, the truth can be uncomfortable, but better knowing what the weaknesses are before you go public.

    We all carry biases of come kind, and the more we become involved with a project, the less clearly we can see thing. Our perspective changes as our buy-in increases. The role of devil’s advocate holds a mirror so that we can see in the clear light of day what flaws may exist.

    The problem is that no one ever really wants to take their counsel.

    Good post as always.

    • Thanks Martina!

      I think people who play the devil’s advocate role also need to learn how to be … gentle. You can offer really good advice and depending on how you package it, people will see it as productive criticism or trolling. Sometimes the temptation to point out flaws can get the better of you and you can seem like a flat-out jerk.

  3. Margie, this is SOOO right on the money! My friend Bernie Turner, founder of Walden University and one of the most humble, gifted, and successful leaders I have ever met, serves on a number of corporate boards. He tells me this business hot shots keep him around because “I ask uncomfortable questions.” Guess what? Not one of his businesses, or the companies he advises thus, has ever failed, not even during the financial meltdown of 2008-9. Not one.

    Do we leaders all need a devil’s advocate, or several, to keep our thoughts fresh and sharp? I defer to Bernie.

    • That’s a great story, Ted, and I am not surprised. A lot of people have responded that they have seen the devil’s advocate thrown out of the room. Your story shows the value of keeping them around!

  4. Good article. I’ve seen the devils advocate very often shut down, but I agree it’s necessary to keep around

  5. Hmmmm…I left a comment here a few days ago, but poof! I don’t see it here:( Curious.

  6. […] talked before about how important it is to have a devil’s advocate . You’re close to your product, you’re close to your projects, and it is difficult to […]

  7. […] few months ago we wrote a post about the importance of having a devil’s advocate as part of your product development team. Before beginning to promote a new product, it is truly […]

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