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In praise of the devil’s advocate

Business has much to learn from the Christian church. It has been around for much longer than any single commercial organisation and so has perhaps developed successful structures and processes that other organisations might emulate. (This is not an original thought. One of the first texts I read on organisation behaviour suggested the Church, the Army and the Mafia all as organisations meriting study!)

I’d like to pick out two features of the Church that could be of interest. The first is the role of Bishop’s Chaplain – appointed primarily to serve a bishop and who is of a more junior rank. Although serving the bishop in the execution of his duties, the role can also involve acting as a confidant and support to someone who is at the top of their organisation. We replicate this role in business with that of a coach to top executives; the top can otherwise be a lonely place to be and without check, powerful people can start to believe that they are infallible! And in this context, it’s worth remembering that even Caesar had a member of the praetorian guard, whispering as the victory parade proceeds to the roar of acclaiming crowds, 'Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.'

The second feature is the devils’ advocate. This was originally a formal role within the canonisation process of the Roman Catholic Church occupied by the Promoter of the Faith, who was a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonisation of a candidate. It was abolished only in 1983, but of course has long been used to refer to someone arguing against a case.

This can be very fruitful. There is a feature of groups where there is unhealthy agreement as exemplified in the so-called Abilene paradox (and if you don’t know about this, you should look it up!) There are of course some people who oppose just to get attention, but thoughtful critiques can do much to improve a concept. As a consultant, I was once engaged to be a devil’s advocate and indeed a group of us once formed a consultancy called Business Catalysis, which aimed to bring an external point of view to strategic decisions. We spent a lot of time thinking about this, but in the end made no sales of something which is perhaps an unattractive proposition.

However, an outside view is of value; one of my colleagues remarks on the “distance” that consultants bring when engaging with an organisation for the first time; increasing familiarity, with the passage of time, reduces that distance (in a process that some consultancies call “going native”) and, as a consequence, the independence of view as well.

So perhaps, like the Roman Catholic Church, each organisation should seek out devil’s advocates.

And for those of you who expected a film review, I thoroughly recommend the film “The Devil’s Advocate”.


Calvert Markham

Sunday 18th April 2021
Hands on typewriter