Does a Devil’s Advocate Kill Innovation?

When recently scanning the synopsis of a book I wanted to read, one sentence really struck me. I don’t mean it made me pause and think, I mean it made me stop and question my being. To paraphrase, it said being a devil’s advocate is detrimental to innovation. In fact, it said that devils’ advocates kill innovation. People have called me a devil’s advocate for as long as I can remember and I never considered it a bad thing. WTF! Do I kill innovation?

I don’t question things for the sake of it (well, most of the time anyway). It’s just an innate quality I’ve always valued. When a new issue, idea, or project comes about, being able to see it from all angles –obstacles, opportunities, things to consider – has always come naturally to me. Reading that sentence made me question whether or not this quality was truly something to be proud of – or a behavior that I needed to change – quick! I can’t imagine anything worse than being a roadblock to innovation. In fact, I consider myself to be a change agent – and change is the true core of innovation. Innovation is such a passion of mine that I’ve been entrusted with the job of being the lead pioneer for NewsGator’s new Innovation Solution for Social Sites. I think you are starting to understand why this proclamation caused me so much angst.

What is a devil's advocate?

To start building my case against why I’m not a devil’s advocate, I looked at this new perspective from all angles. What is the true definition of a devil’s advocate? How subjective is the definition? Do others consider me to be a devil’s advocate? For sources, I consulted Dictionary.com and the Urban Dictionary (if most people incorrectly consider Wikipedia a credible source, then I’m going to do the same for Urban Dictionary). Both sources have what I would consider a two-sided definition: “a person who advocates an opposing or unpopular cause for the sake of argument or to expose it to a thorough examination.” That second OR is a big one. My next step was to consult a few passionate and overtly-blunt friends and colleagues for their views. They validated my case by noting my keen ability to ask a lot of questions, to see all sides of an issue, and to inspire change through new ideas and perspectives.

After I conducted my research (and did some soul searching), I came to the conclusion that I’m equally a devil’s advocate and a trailblazer – and I’m ok with that.

Innovation is at the heart of every positive change in your life – both in your work and personal life. The focus being positive change. To inspire change and innovation, you have to be inquisitive, curious, and not afraid to completely reinvent yourself or your business.

That said, I think devils’ advocates have a role – as long as their motives are constructive and encouraging.

Ask the questions

So I challenge you to ask the tough questions. Ask your employees the tough questions. Could a process be done more efficiently or completely different? (“This is how we’ve always done it” has to be one of the most expensive statements in business.) How can technology help? What does the future of our company look like in six months? If you build an open, trusting, and social work environment, it will naturally encourage and generate innovative ideas from people across your global organization.

I would love to hear your thoughts and arguments. Do you agree that a devil’s advocate kills innovation?

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