How to improve decision making? Reserve one chair for the Devil’s Advocate

Devils advocate will improve decision making

We make too many decisions at the eleventh hour. The urgency and the pressure to decide quite often lead to incorrect decisions. When we look back at our decisions, we find out that some arguments were never made. Some doubts were never discussed. Someone made a suggestion. The suggestion sounded okay. Everyone in the room, though not fully convinced, voted in favor of the suggestion. From a wrong hire to incorrect marketing strategies, there are several judgement errors we make. How could we better evaluate each suggestion and improve decision making as a group?

What goes wrong while making important decisions?

I wish every business and team followed a tollgate review system to evaluate decisions and ideas. There are several costs involved:

  • The meeting to discuss the context and ideas has a cost. Several people attend the meeting (physical or virtual). Every minute spent per person is a cost to the company
  • The implementation of the approved idea(s) will have a cost
  • The monitoring of the implementation will also cost the company
  • There could be significant losses incurred if we end up making a wrong decision
  • The corrective action too will be costly

Take a pause and think about the bad decisions you were a part of.

Let me list a few common decision making mistakes

  • There is immense pressure to fill a vacancy. The recruitment team has not been able to source relevant candidate profiles for the selection process. The deadline is nearing, hence we select one applicant from the few not-so-fit-for-the-job profiles
  • The company decides to step up advertising spends to meet the sales goal for next year. One of the team members recommends an agency for the job. The agency submits the proposal, the team evaluates, negotiates and gives a go-ahead. The team did not prepare a scope of work before talking to the agency. Either one or only a few agencies were evaluated. Efforts were not made to get the “best suited agency” on board. The team went ahead with the referral and a few client testimonials presented by the agency.
  • The company needs to roll out a promotional offer to get repeat orders. An idea to offer a 20% discount code for the next order is proposed during a meeting. There are a few other ideas proposed however this is selected as someone makes an argument that this will motivate customers to make a repeat purchase.  A good thought, however lots of other factors need to be considered. For instance, what is the repeat purchase rate for your product category? What is the frequency of purchase? Did you check the success of similar offers made in the past? What are the competitors offering?

These are some common decisions small business make quite often. The meeting room has representatives from various departments and the collective group discusses problems, evaluates ideas and approves solutions.

What’s missing though is a thorough investigation and counter-questioning. The group needs at least one person to play the Devil’s Advocate and question the merit of the proposed plan. Why will the idea work? What could go wrong? If it ends up being a wrong or a terrible idea, what will be the impact on the business? Both the short term as well as the long term impact.

Why are we less critical while making decisions?

The following are some SINS of the collective decision making process.

  • We do not think it is important enough. “It sounds simple enough. Could be taken care of anyways…..”
  • “Why should I bother?” Does not affect my job. I couldn’t care less….
  • “I am sure he knows best.” Failure to question the authority or intelligence of a senior or experienced team member
  • “Let’s get this over with.” There are several other important tasks to be completed
  • “This has worked in the past too”. Just because something worked or failed in the past does not guarantee the same repeat outcome. The context may have changed

One or more of the reasons mentioned above prevent us from a thorough evaluation of each decision. What, where, why and how something can go wrong needs to be understood to calculate the impact of every decision.

The solution to improve decision making: Reserve one chair in the meeting room for the Devil’s Advocate.

The Devil’s Advocate to Improve Decision Making

The Devil's Advocate for Decision Making

One person from the group of people in every meeting has to play the role of the Devil’s advocate. Designate one chair in the office meeting room as the “Devil’s Chair”. Randomly select one person to sit on the devil’s chair.

The person or the “Devil in the Meeting” needs to question every idea and argument.

The Devil’s Advocate in the meeting will “express a contentious opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments”.

As the devil pretends to be against the proposed idea or plan that others support, this makes others discuss more and debate the idea in more detail. The conscious questioning of the merit of the plan and subsequent efforts by the others to validate the idea facilitate a thorough evaluation. It helps uncover probable failure modes and thus improves decision making for the group.

This process is effective as well as it makes the meeting lively and adds some fun for the group. There are times when the opposition sounds downright silly. Everyone knows that the devil is opposing and asking questions as he or she has a role to play. However, the fun and silly gets the job done. It makes people think and question. Volunteer to be the Devil in the next office meeting.

By Nitesh Verma

Founder - Business Management Blog

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