Everyday news is awash with examples of bad corporate decisions, the ones that make you wonder, “How could they do that?” There are huge corporate decision-making failures such as witnessed with GM and the ignition issues or Bridgestone and the flipping Ford Explorers where problems were covered up. There are others, like the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan where backup generators to run the cooling systems were located in an area subject to flooding, a decision which caused 150,000 to flee and the eventual loss of many lives and livelihoods. And then, there is Duke Power’s very delayed decision to clean up 70 miles of the Dan River which they contaminated with 140,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge that may never get cleaned up.
And there must be a zillion similar small examples happening every day in every organization, decisions that could be greatly improved if someone’s role was to challenge the thinking rather than to simply go along (often referred to now as The GM Shrug). GM people knew of the safety problem early — it was detected even before the first of these cars came on the market, according to an internal investigation about their handling of this issue. But nothing was done and the cars were manufactured and sold, resulting in some deaths and other problems.
A blog by Dan Rockwell on seven secrets to success, referenced in another post of mine, suggest this decision-supporting idea as one of the key secrets:
#6. Embrace forward facing contrarians.
Conformists don’t build the future, but forward facing contrarians pull you forward. Protect them from the frustrations of others, as much as possible.
Personally, I do not think of the label of Contrarian as being much of a positive one, nor its alternative, The Devil’s Advocate. Contrarian sounds too “centennial” and angry – I mentally image some Roman guy in a toga with a sword standing on a pedestal or something. The Devil’s Advocate role was thought to originate with the Roman Catholic Church in 1587 to challenge against canonization of a person, “to take a skeptical view of the candidate’s character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on. The Devil’s advocate opposed God’s advocate.” (from wikipedia)
But what do we label this person?? What do we call that role? How can we frame this challenging job for teams in a positive way with our language?
– Divergent Repostulator?
– Re-Conceiver / Re-Conceptualizer
– Reverse Thinker?
– Polymorpheus Recapitulator?
I’m thinking Contrarian has a nicer ring than Devil’s Advocate but that Challenger has an even better framework for organizational improvement than Contrarian… I’m going with Challenger as that positive role for helping groups make better decisions. Appoint a temporary one today for your groups.
I will build that concept into some of my debriefing tools for my team building games. With six people on a team in The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, for example, one of those people can certainly operate in a way to positively challenge the “group-think” and help drive out better strategic and tactical thinking.
For the FUN of It!
Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.