Devils and good decisions

One of my favorite insights from Decisive relates to the importance of diverging opinions in crafting good decisions.

I think this is incredibly important, perhaps especially when organizations–like the nonprofits with which I normally work–are embarking on new journeys, including the effort to integrate advocacy into their work. I would much rather have someone asking critical questions, even really difficult ones, than have the organization coast along, having failed to adequately account for the potential risks of their positions and to prepare to articulate the rationale behind the transition.

I think ‘devil’s advocate’ role is a good fit for social workers, in particular.

  • We tend to care deeply about our organizations and its purpose, which is essential; someone who wants to see the organization fail, or who just delights in ‘blowing stuff up’ cannot possibly play the same productive role.
  • Our excellent communications skills can help us to articulate our concerns within the context of a desire to serve the organization, with attention to the socio-emotional consequences of challenging people’s ideas.
  • Our relationships with peers can help us to surface others’ contrary arguments, too, when they may not be willing or able to voice them themselves, enriching the process.

But although criticism is a ‘noble function’ (p. 97), it’s one that can’t be filled regularly by the same person, if the process is to work well.

If someone always plays the ‘no’ card, that person will be marginalized within the organization. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, too, especially given the reality of power imbalances within any organization.

What we need, instead, are structures that create space for devil’s advocates to work, and, indeed, that encourage them.

I’ve seen this in some of the organizations with which I work: the nonprofit whose staff surfaced an internal agency policy as the first target of their advocacy agenda, and got an encouraging ‘go ahead’ from the leadership, who acknowledged that there was an authentic interest in finding better solutions than what they had initially crafted; the agency whose practicum students are invited to share candid feedback about the organization after grades have been posted and recommendations written; the organization that started our advocacy TA process with meetings with every departmental team, sharing the proposed work plan and giving people a chance to veto particular projects and suggest new directions (time-consuming, yes, but buy-in afterwards was through the roof).

These organizational practices–and, indeed, they have to be practiced to become ingrained–take the onus of being the ‘devil’ off any one person or even department (even we skilled social workers who are a bit less conflict-averse, I think, than many professions) and, instead, enshrine it in the agency’s operations.

We invite the ‘devil’ to sit down at the decision-making table with us…and we are the better for it.

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