Have you seen the latest Zombie apocalypse movie, World War Z?
Sure, it’s way over the top (what Zombie movie isn’t?). But it’s a lot of fun, as long as you don’t expect too much. And I came away intrigued with one of the concepts in the movie.
The main character, Gerry (played by Brad Pitt), roams the world searching for a way to identify and stop the Zombie pandemic. In the process, it comes to his attention that Israel – no stranger to building protective walls – erected a giant wall around the city of Jerusalem days before the outbreak became known.
Wanting to know what tipped them off, Gerry meets with a Mossad (Israel’s equivalent of the CIA) agent, who explains the concept of the agency’s 10-member analysis team. When information comes in that nine agents agree upon, the 10th agent must adopt the opposing view, research it, and defend it as the truth – no matter how unlikely or far-fetched it might seem.
This scene reminded me of a business leadership technique called the “devil’s advocate.” Before making important decisions in management meetings, smart leaders will often pick one person to argue strenuously for the opposing point of view. Not so much to convince others of that point of view. But more to make sure that those in agreement aren’t overlooking some key data points that could significantly impact the decision if they were brought out into the open.
Interestingly, the term “devil’s advocate” comes from the Catholic Church’s canonization process. During this process, the Vatican appoints two attorneys. The Promoter of the Cause, commonly called God’s advocate, advances the case for conferring sainthood. The Promoter of the Faith, commonly known as the devil’s advocate, has the job of discrediting the saint nominee’s actions and character.
In these uncertain times, leaders have to make a lot of decisions without having all the information, which increases the amount of uncertainty and risk. We can mitigate some of this risk by playing devil’s advocate in many different ways. Here are a few from my new book, Using Your Brain to Win.
Diversify your team.
It’s human nature to surround ourselves with people that think like us, share similar viewpoints, and see the world in the same way. It’s also one of the worst things a leader can do. Make a conscious effort to build a diverse team, not just in terms of skills and technical abilities, but also in backgrounds, thinking styles, and world perspectives.
Expand your sources of data.
These days, competitive threats often come from outside your industry. Broadening your inputs, both internally and externally, is essential to avoid getting blindsided by the next zombie horde that disrupts your industry. Make it a point to read magazines, visit web sites, and gather other sources of data from outside your industry on a regular basis.
Take off your rose-colored glasses.
C-level business leaders tend to have unrealistic ideas of what goes on in their organizations and how others view the companies. To overcome this natural (and valid) bias/thought bubble, get out of your office and spend more time with customers and employees. Take 20 minutes a day to walk around your business and talk to the people on the front lines about what is happening in their world. If you don’t have a system for staying in touch with customers on a regular basis, get one now!
Pretend you’ve already failed.
This one comes from an article I recently read online (http://www.ceo.com/flink/?lnk=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.fastcompany.com%2F3013013%2Fdialed%2F11-simple-tips-for-having-great-meetings-from-some-of-the-worlds-most-productive-peop&id=301964#ceoid=nlel278). Before launching a new product or service, best-selling author Guy Kawasaki recommends pretending the product has already failed and identifying the reasons why it did. These could range from lack of distribution to misreading the market or poor product quality. The point is to get people imagining what could go wrong and then planning appropriate responses in case they do.
Constantly ask, “What did we miss?”
We’re all running so fast these days that new ideas often don’t get more than a cursory once-over before we push them through. This is especially true with ideas that look good at first glance and keep looking better. When everyone on the team is in agreement on an idea, decision, or new direction, that’s the time to pause for a moment, slow down and ask, “What are we missing here? Does anyone see it differently?”
Using these techniques to actively encourage opposing points of view will spark livelier discussions and improve your decision-making process. And it will keep those pesky zombies away without having to build a wall around your business.
Call to action: Commit to using one of these techniques before making your next important management decision.