Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Devil's Advocate? Red Tape?

In "Seven Ways to Fail Big" Paul Carroll and Chunka Mui describe common ways businesses lose millions and sometimes billions of dollars from Synergy Mirage to Staying the Course. To avoid disaster, they offer a tip - "institute a formal review by a devil's advocate who is truly separate from the strategy-development and has explicit license to ask tough questions." The phrases red tape and diffusing the blame immediately pop into my head. Therefore, I am very curious which companies have already tried this tactic and if it has indeed steered them clear of failure.

In a sense, this panel, or individual, is very much just an advisory board or commission. For example, before someone decides to construct a work of public art on city property here in Pittsburgh, they have to seek Art Commission approval. Most people think these decisions are based solely on subjectivity, but in actuality, these experts in the field ask the questions these groups may have never considered. 'Do you have community support for this project?' 'Who will maintain it?' 'What is the longevity of these materials?' There are several stages of approval from conceptual to final acceptance. After all, it takes time and money to choose an artist to design a work, have an architect devise construction documents, raise funds, etc. Thus, it can take years for a very large project to successfully pass through all the phases, and even then, construction needs to take place.

Therefore, recommending a devil's advocate sounds peachy enough, but as the article warns, he, she, or them, will be faced with disdain. Imagine spending years developing a project, simply to get vetoed by someone who was not involved in the process. And what if that group has no power to approve or deny your project anyhow - would you be incentivized to still endure this process?

Additionally, if the devil's advocates approve the strategy and it succeeds, we praise the executives and management team that came up with the idea. If it fails, we blame the devil's advocates for not raising the right questions or concerns. If the devil's advocates show disapproval for a strategy then they are met with hostility and frustration from management.

I don't doubt this tactic can be effective, but the job description is too specific and narrow to allow for any expansion of the devil's advocate position. I just have a feeling it's destined to fail.

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