Embracing the “Devil’s Advocate”

In this TED talk, Margaret Heffernen makes the point that “openness alone can’t drive change”.  Information can be readily available that makes a persuasive argument for change and yet… nothing happens.

This TED blog entry, posted by Kate Torgovnick,  summarizes Margaret Heffernen’s perspective that –

“85% of executives had concerns with their company that they were afraid to raise, out of fear of the conflict that would ensue. Heffernan warns that this not only means that businesses aren’t getting the best work out of their employees, but that issues which could be nipped in the bud internally perpetuate themselves.”

The information is in front of them, but they couldn’t take action because of the fear of conflict, and as a result the organization can’t think together.  Overcoming that obstacle requires a lot of guts.

In her TED talk, Margaret Heffernen describes a scenario where an executive has serious concerns about a product in development, and ends up walking away from his organization as a result — only to find a way to raise his concerns because he couldn’t not speak, and to find that many other people had the same concern he did.  They were able to then work together to solve the issues.

Taking a more proactive approach within your organization of openly embracing conflict, with alternative opinions and the “devil’s advocate” role as you approach something new gives you a great opportunity to poke holes into what you’re planning.

The TED blog post describes the role of the “devil’s advocate” in planning for the recent landing of Curiosity on Mars —

“Rob Manning did everything in his power to screw up the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars last night. Manning not only cut radio signals to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s control room, but also simulated a hole being poked in the rover’s fuel system and solar flares flying toward the spacecraft.

Why would he do this?

Because he is the chief engineer for the rover mission, and wanted his team to be able to handle any worst-case scenario.

“Being a gremlin allows me to soul-search and look at all the things that I missed,” Manning told the Chicago Tribune in the days before last night’s landing.”

So far, Curiosity is doing just fine.   Job well done, Rob Manning!

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