A Devil’s Advocate Can Be Your Best Asset

Thinking negatively — or casting a cynical eye on a situation instead of being overly optimistic or idealistic — can be a beneficial part of the problem-solving process because it helps identify gaps and barriers to success.

Of course, negative thinking is just one lens leaders can use to help achieve a holistic view of a situation. Whatever perspectives leaders adopt, they must try to be open and objective. This will help approach the issue with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be unattached to any particular course or solution. When leaders are in an exploratory mode, it is critical to ask the right questions.

Using a framework can help individuals and teams ask the right questions, identify potential challenges and align themselves for a successful outcome. To assess a situation, start with these four areas:

What? — Establish the topic, define the focus or outcome and clarify the goal. Sample questions:

What are we trying to achieve? What does success look like?

Why? — Identify the value and potential impacts connected to the topic. Sample questions: Why is this important or meaningful to us? If we can’t achieve X, what are the implications?

Why not? — Clarify the barriers, roadblocks and problems that may limit action or success. Sample questions: Who or what might stop us or get in our way? Why isn’t this already happening?

How? — Identify resource needs, clarify action steps and build a plan. Sample questions: What do we need to start, stop or continue doing? Are we being realistic or playing too small/big?

Bringing in a bit of devil’s advocate thinking to the problem-solving process helps both broaden and deepen the exploration to help see more of the whole picture. Therefore, leaders are better able to clarify where they want to go, understand the value and impact of that objective, and gain insight on what might help and hinder the process.

By evaluating multiple vantage points, leaders can uncover and home in on the salient points to identify the most appropriate approach. Through the experience, leaders may tease out root causes or even discover that they are focused on entirely the wrong issues, thus raising a whole new set of questions.

Judah Kurtz is a senior manager of talent solutions and an executive coach at BPI Group, a management and HR consulting firm. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.