Don’t allow Devil’s Advocates.

Wikipedia defines Devil’s Advocate as:

“…someone who takes a position he or she disagrees with for the sake of argument. This process can be used to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure.”

This is of course an essential part of any successful collaboration and the process of innovation. However, if you “test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure” before having explored the idea fully and to its natural end, you run the risk of destroying a remarkable opportunity and a potentially innovative idea in a flash of a second. How can this happened one might wonder? You have heard the words before: “Do you mind if I play Devil’s Advocate for a second?’. This phrase does three things well: it will give the ‘Advocate’ in question the possibility of thinking in a non-productive fashion; take no responsibility for their words as they have taken on this new persona; and stop the creative process.

If you work in a successful team that brainstorms often and effectively you will notice that ideas, the good ideas, appear after lots of suggestions, tweaking and discussion. New ideas will also appear which can be listed and explored at a later date. When we write together or prepare for workshop sessions, we always start with a blank canvas and then thrash out thoughts and ideas on the page. After a few hours of serious ‘mapping’ we eventually begin to see something concrete, worthwhile and interesting. If one of us started playing the dreaded ‘Devil’s Advocate’ then we would never have come up with the books, websites and workshops like we have today.

Also, let’s not forget that a successful mapping/brainstorming session ends with a good idea which has been created by the team not the person. You have probably heard someone utter those words “That was my idea”. This completely undermines the whole creative process of collaboration and brainstorming. The idea of course appeared as a consequence of a lot of hard work and interesting/not-so-interesting ideas.

We are not saying that the birth of an innovative idea should not be followed up with critique. We believe that evaluation of ideas and critiquing projects are essential ingredients for the success of the collaboration/product or idea. However, one must allow the creative proccess to happen and for it to flow and not shoot down an idea before it has had a chance to flourish. Think about how many brilliant ideas that have been ruined or inventions that could have made a difference because of the Devil’s Advocate?

We say: encourage creativity and constructive, thoughtful and solution-focused discussion.

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Johannes Ahrenfelt

Johannes Ahrenfelt has previously worked as County Advisor for Learning & Teaching with ICT, Head of Department and University Lecturer. He has taught for 10+ years in schools around Norfolk, UK, and is currently leading an inspirational team in Norwich as Head of Faculty. Johannes shares his passion for pedagogy on his blog, social media and when delivering training in the UK and abroad. He has also published several books worldwide, one of which has been translated into Mandarin and Malayan.

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