A Devil's Advocate on the Board?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if boards could foresee the obstacles aheadA - in time to make the right decisions?

Absent a few sprinkles of fairy dust, using the devil's advocate technique might assist you in identifying such obstacles. A devil's advocate (DA) is someone who takes an opposing view to test an idea or project the board is considering. The DA's job is to ask questions and make the best case possible against the proposal. By responding to the questions and challenges, the board is forced into healthy debate as it considers arguments it might never have thought of had it not been someone's specific task to challenge the board's thinking.

Here's how it works. Select one board member and place an index card marked DA or devil's advocate in front of that person. Throughout the meeting, this person should ask questions to test the soundness of the decisions the organization is considering.A

A services center averts disaster

For example, a small suburban nonprofit that provides services to elder adults was considering expanding services to include another age group. At the insistence of one very vocal board member, this 25-year-old agency was wondering if it should use its expertise in day services to assist young people.

After the first meeting using this technique, the board began to pass the DA card around the table, giving more people the opportunity to offer challenges to the proposal on the table - allA under the cloak of security the DA card offered.

Through the tough and sometimes tense discussions, board members decided that their goal was "increased" service, not necessarily "expanded" service. By using the DA card over the course of several meetings, the board realized that the additional licensure, insurance, and expertise that the organization would need to offer youth services outweighed the potential benefits. The agency then looked for ways to make it easier to access their offerings, such as providing transportation from a nearby bus depot.

Don't forget to be nice

Use this technique every meeting or only when an important issue is up for discussion. A couple of caveats: holding the DA card does not give this board member the ability to block or hold decisions from a vote, nor should the board hold it against the designated DA for asking tough questions. You shouldn't be annoyed with someone whose "job" it is to question the wisdom of an idea...right?

Elizabeth C. Vibber is a consultant with Bucks County Center for Nonprofit Management, a consulting affiliate to nonprofits of Bee, Bergvall & Co., a CPA firm in suburban Philadelphia.

Comments (11)

  • Heh. I can imagine alternative interpretations of "DA": Designated Agitator; Disparager of Anything; Damned A**hole; etc.

    Mar 15, 2009
  • I love the idea of instituting a designated Devil's Advocate role. In many group situations, there are often people who hold alternative/helpful views, but  who are unfortunately cowed into silence by their peers and groupthink.

    Mar 16, 2009
  • I have found that people use the preface, "let me just play devil's advocate" as a cowarldy way to express their opposition to an idea they may know nothing about, haven't researched or have visceral opposition to. I have never seen it used in a positive sense, as you posit. I find that "devil's advocates" seem to feel the term offers protection against their own personally held views and I have come to hate the term. We have too may "devil's advocates" damaging this world.
    I propose we encourage more "angel's advocates" who can promote good ideas, constructively study options and create better solutions!

    Mar 16, 2009
  • Another way to do this is just to ask the group to list all the "pro's" and "cons" they can think of that pertain to the situation.
    I have used this many times to work through difficult decisions and have had very good luck. Not all of it turned out the way I expected it to because the wisdom of the group tend to be more than the sum of its parts.

    Mar 16, 2009
  • I often use the term "curmudgeon" for this role
    Cathy Hartle

    Mar 16, 2009
  • No matter which technique (or DA interpretation) you choose to use, one of the healthiest activities for a board is to engage in thoughtful discussion rather than careless consent. Some boards are very sophisticated and are able to do this well, others need some sort of permission to question. As usual, there is no ‘one-size fits all’, just another tool in the toolbox to use when the time is right. Liz (Vibber)

    Mar 17, 2009
  • And this is why people have always turned to you for sage advice and fresh ideas. I hope your students are taking copious notes.

    Mar 17, 2009
  • Devil's Advocate can looked at as a QA type of function. The QA objective is to make certain things work while making reasonably certain that making one thing work does not break something else. No one person or group is going to ferret all the possible ins and outs of a situation, but a reasonable effort is often well worth the work. (Defining "reasonable" can be a significant challenge on its own but that is outside this discussion.)
    A Devil's Advocate can be whatever the group allows it to be. It can be a tool to help make a plan the best it can possibly be. It can be a veiled opportunity to spew venom, even misinformation. The group or someone in it should have some control over this. Perhaps the identification of a common objective before a discussion could minimize the challenge. In your case, realizing that "increased" and "expanded" meant very different things redirected everyone to the same path.
    The description of a Devil's Advocate" has long been established. Perhaps someone can coin a term encompassing the distasteful alternative definitions people have assigned to it. Its reputation has suffered by the mudslinging that happens around it. A Devil’s Advocate deserves a much more respect than some people will allow.

    Mar 19, 2009
  • I like the idea, but I just can't see it. In my (many years) of nonprofit experience, most nonprofits boards I've had contact with are much more comfortable with groupthink. Boards seem to find it difficult to tolerate anyone with different perspectives. Even when someone is assigned to think differently, they get pummeled. It's discouraging - and it makes it hard for organizations to change when they need to move forward.

    Mar 20, 2009
  • I've found there is little need for a designated DA. There's always someone willing to play the role for real.

    Mar 21, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I like the idea, but I just can't see it. In my (many years) of nonprofit experience, most nonprofits boards I've had contact with are much more comfortable with groupthink. Boards seem to find it difficult to tolerate anyone with different perspectives.

    Nov 01, 2011

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