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Devil's Advocate... a Coaching Pattern?

April 22, 2021
8 minute read
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Risky Patterns – Take Care!

Playing the “devil’s advocate” is a risky coaching pattern. You will sometimes need to take coaching risks. These are situations where you risk a small harm in order to avoid a larger harm. Of course, you never deliberately cause permanent harm, but these risky patterns might backfire in a way that jeopardizes the progress of your team. Typically they are used only in situations where the risk of not applying the pattern is greater. In every case, you must take great care to maintain your integrity as an Agile Coach.

If you are new to coaching, it’s often just better to avoid these patterns altogether. There are many coaching patterns that are a great foundation for becoming a successful Agile Coach. Risky patterns should only be tried with careful conscious thought, and never “in the heat of the moment”. Indeed, the best way to learn these risky patterns is by seeing them play out negatively in many situations when other people try them out and they (usually) fail to have positive results. Rarely, you will see an experienced Agile Coach use these patterns successfully. If you get that opportunity, spend time with the coach to do an in-depth debrief to learn from them.

Risky Pattern: Devil’s Advocate (Aggressive Criticism)

You deliberately take an aggressively contrary stance to the ideas or plans being discussed or executed by an individual or the team. You identify logical flaws, missing data, counter-examples, or possible biases. You push people in the discussion to consider strong criticism, and you don’t let people get away with ignoring problems.

Some people are “naturals” at this. You might be one of them… I am! Learning to control this tendency of instant criticism (nit-picking, pedantic thinking, hole-finding, argumentation, etc.) is essential to being an effective Agile Coach. Mostly, playing “devil’s advocate” is annoying and counter-productive. Even if you are right about the problems you are seeing, there are almost always more effective ways of addressing those problems. Almost always.

This pattern can be effective. One of the most well-known descriptions of this pattern is found in the book “Six Thinking Hats” by Edward deBono where he describes this as wearing a “black hat”. To be fair, he contrasts it with the “devil’s advocate” position somewhat. However, the core of the pattern is there. He says: “This specificity of the black hat relieves the thinker of the need to be fair and to see both sides of the situation. When he or she is wearing the black hat, negativity can be given full rein.” (1985, p82)

So when is this sort of aggressive criticism useful and effective and when is it inappropriate?

Contraindications

First I’m going to describe some common situations when it is not effective:

  1. Don’t criticize when emotions are high (positive or negative). Emotions create biases both in yourself and the people around you. If emotions are high, absolutely do not criticize anything until emotions have calmed down… a lot, and a good amount of time has passed!
  2. Don’t criticize people. Ever. Avoid criticizing people’s statements and actions, particularly if they aren’t present to hear your criticism. It’s easy to fall into doing this if you are criticizing ideas or options. Just don’t.
  3. If you are in any position of authority over people, ie. their manager responsible for performance evaluations, you cannot use this technique in a public forum. Certainly, in private, you may have to criticize certain things as part of performance evaluations. But even then, the “devil’s advocate” pattern is likely not applicable.

Setting Up the Pattern

So when is the “devil’s advocate” pattern effective? Well, it needs to be set-up.

First off, you absolutely need permission from everyone else involved to play the pattern. There are a few different ways to get this permission, but the safest is to ask and get affirmative permission from each and every person involved.

Secondly, you need to clearly commit to criticism of ideas, options and plans only. You need to positively affirm that you will not criticize people (present or otherwise), and ask everyone to call you out immediately if you accidentally stray from that commitment.

Thirdly, you need to promise that with each criticism you will clearly identify if the criticism is based on logic, verifiable facts, personal experience or personal feeling. In other words, you will precede each critical statement by categorizing it as one of those four types.

Fourthly, you need another person who you will definitely respect, to act as a facilitator. There should be a pre-agreed signal such as a phrase or visual cue that the facilitator will use to let you and the rest of the people know if things are getting out of hand. If the facilitator signals a problem, you stop!

Finally, you also need to put a specific boundary on when you will stop performing the “devil’s advocate” position. This can be a specific amount of time or a natural boundary such as the end of the meeting. This boundary needs to be shared with the people you are with.

This set-up then creates boundaries and a certain level of psychological “safety” for those involved. Without this safety, you cannot proceed with the pattern.

Delegating the Devil’s Advocate

Sometimes you aren’t the right one to play this pattern. In particular, if you are a manager, you are never the right person to play this pattern. You can delegate the pattern to someone else. Often there is an individual in your organization who is a natural at this. They often are perceived as abrasive or annoying. By delegating this pattern to that person, and doing so with great formality, you can actually help that person earn the respect of their colleagues and at the same time reduce the emotional burden that person places on them.

To delegate, you must start by approaching the individual privately. In making this approach, it is important to keep your discussion positive. Here is an example short script:

YOU: “I’ve noticed you have a powerful skill that is very important for our success. I’m hoping I can talk with you about enhancing your contribution to the team. Do you have some time to talk about this?”

You arrange a time, ideally face-to-face (either in-person or with video). This is not the sort of thing that should be discussed with text messages or emails.

During the conversation you must:

  • clearly and positively describe the power of logical criticism,
  • acknowledge the skill of the person in doing this,
  • acknowledge that some people struggle with hearing criticism,
  • say you have a process for helping people to respond better to criticism,
  • express in words and body language that you want to share that process with the person,
  • and you are committed to coach them and the rest of the team in order to make criticism a more effective part of the team’s deliberations.

You can then provide the preceding guidance on how to do the pattern (and when not to do it). You will also have to communicate to the rest of the team that your chosen delegate will be playing this role and how it will be done. Again, you can provide the preceding guidance with the rest of the team to help explain it.

At first, you will have to facilitate the use of the “devil’s advocate” pattern so that the appropriate psychological safety is maintained. As a manager you have the power to control the discussion and stop things if they are getting out of hand. Over the course of several discussions in which this pattern is used, your team will get the hang of things and you won’t need to be closely facilitating.

Coaching Integrity and Stance

The “devil’s advocate” pattern is risky. Therefore, as a coach, you need to be extremely careful with applying the pattern. In some ways, this is the easiest pattern; many people are very good at logical criticism. In my work with software developers, that is even more true than normal since software development is extremely logical and detail-oriented work. This pattern can get over-used very quickly, or it can be used accidentally without following all the constraints of the pattern.

Your goal as an Agile Coach includes balancing the needs of individuals, the team or teams, and the organization you are working within. This balancing act is hard and takes a great deal of integrity. The “devil’s advocate” pattern is a pattern with a high risk of harm to individuals even though it can be very powerful for the progress of the team and the organization.

Your integrity as an Agile Coach is also at risk when you use this pattern. Make no mistake: this is a very severe warning! Think of this pattern as one of the “nuclear options”. It has a huge amount of energy, but can also really blow things up!

Use with extreme caution.

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