Employee Communications

How To Tame the Devil’s Advocate in Marketing Brainstorms

By Kari Hernandez

“Let me play the devil’s advocate for a minute,” is up there with “With all due respect,” and “No offense, but,” for the phrases I dread the most in marketing brainstorms. It gives the speaker permission to say whatever critical thing is on their mind without impunity. Because they meant no offense, or better yet, because the devil made them do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cynical people. A healthy skepticism is a critical trait in my book. Especially when it’s paired with a sense of humor. But the devil’s advocate is no friend of mine – or so I thought until I learned they really just have bad timing.

Tom Kelley of IDEO puts the devil’s advocate in context in his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation. He writes, “What’s truly astonishing is how much punch is packed into that simple phrase. In fact, the devil’s advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today. What makes this negative persona so dangerous is that it is such a subtle threat. Every day, thousands of great new ideas, concepts, and plans are nipped in the bud by devil’s advocates.”

In a marketing brainstorm, the devil’s advocate thinks he is helping to improve the idea, but the idea is simply too new and fragile to survive all the proposed downsides and problems. More than just killing one particular idea, this line of questioning will kill all the ideas to come. 

If our marketing brainstorm is a pond and the ideas are an army of tadpoles, the devil’s advocate is the 6-year-old boy who just stomped in and swooped up our future frogs with a toy net.

Protect your pond. Here’s how:

Teach the difference between “yes and” and “yes but.” We’re big believers in the power of improv and most people know the secret rule of “yes, and.” But does everyone realize the powerful limitations of “yes, but?” Pair your team off and have one person in each pair start a fictional conversation with the phrase, “Remember when we went to [insert random place]?” The other person has to continue the story with the phrase “yes, but XYZ.” After a couple of “yes, buts” the conversation will have nowhere to go. Now try the same with “yes, and,” to see the difference in energy, facial expressions, fun, and laughter.

Make it clear the goal is volume. The purpose of a brainstorm is to generate options – lots and lots of them. Assume there is not one right answer but multiple solutions to the same challenge. A brainstorm is not the time to debate an idea. Focus attention instead on framing the challenge and building on other’s ideas. From there you can sort your ideas into themes and generate more ideas for those categories to make sure no idea is left on the table. Sometimes you have to go to crazy town and come back to move from boring to brilliant.

Give them another job. Kelley teaches us that there are a lot of hats to wear in a healthy brainstorm, but the devil’s advocate is not one of them. Instead, encourage your teammates to take on one or many of these more productive roles:

  • The Anthropologist finds innovation and inspiration through empathy with the audience. They often venture into the field with an open mind to see things that have gone unnoticed. The Anthropologist says, “Let’s look at how the customer might see this.” Your devil’s advocate might benefit from being assigned to represent the thinking of a particular customer.
  • The Cross-Pollinator draws inspiration from everywhere and connects disparate ideas to create new concepts. They are often inspired by different perspectives from other cultures, organizations, industries, and nature. They say, “This reminds me of something I saw here that we might be able to learn from.” You might ask them to come to meeting to add a particular viewpoint or expertise to the conversation.
  • The Hurdler is a problem-solver who seeks to challenge the status quo by gracefully overcoming the obstacles. They bring optimism and perseverance and might say, “Let’s think about how we might get past X so that we have the time to test Y.” This role may be the best one to tame the devil’s advocate: task them with being the problem solver.
  • The Director sets the stage by bringing the challenge or idea into the big picture context. According to Kelley, the Director targets the opportunity, brings out the best in all the players, and gets things done through empowerment and inspiration. “Let’s go back to why we’re doing this and our strengths to tackle it.” Putting your teammate in this leadership position might provide incentive to nurture the process, people, and ideas.

Give them $100. I’m not suggesting you pay them off. When the brainstorm is complete and the ideas have been gathered and sorted, give your friend of the devil a fat wad of monopoly money. Then have him or her “invest” in the ideas they consider most viable.

Help them use their powers for good. Once you are ready to choose an idea, let your devil’s advocates loose. Have each person come up with as many reasons why the idea won’t work as they possibly can. Then consider the most critical, deal-breaking concerns and test the biggest issues first. If these problems can’t be resolved, you want to know as early as possible to protect resources.

We need the discretion of the devil’s advocate to choose the right ideas, to invest our resources correctly, and to predict and overcome hurdles. We just don’t need them running wild in our brainstorms. Channel that thinking at the right times and places and your projects will be better for it. 

When that’s the case, the friend of the devil can be a friend of mine.