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August 23, 2005

On being an "Angel's Advocate"

Everyone knows what a devil's advocate is, so it should be pretty obvious what is meant by the term angel's advocate. Daniel Goleman advanced this idea during his thought leader session at the ASAE Annual Meeting last week. This was probably the single most resonant concept I encountered at the Annual Meeting, and I wanted to elaborate on it a little as a follow-up to my audioblog post from last week.

Some have better developed critical thinking skills than others, but it is a skill nearly everyone in business has. Critical thinking has its place, but equally important (and perhaps moreso in this whole new world in which we live) is the ability to develop and sustain a culture of creativity. Without creativity, there is no innovation. Without innovation, we are -- at best -- destined for mediocrity. I suspect that managers who pride themselves on proving their critical thinking skills have little knowledge of the damage they do to a culture's creative process.

Consider creative writers at work. They write without evaluating, getting all their ideas and thoughts down on paper before going back to perfect their work. Creativity is extremely fragile. Criticism kills creativity.

How many quote-unquote brainstorming sessions have you attended where some great ideas were evaluated and evaporated before they even made it on to a flipchart? I think I can say with 100% certainty that I've never participated in a true brainstorming session at work. Never! Sadly, my professional life is littered with stillborn ideas. Annihilated by criticism before they ever had a chance to live.

I have to constantly encourage myself to continue thinking creatively, and that's an unfortunate truth.

Today I've decided to start a list. On this list I will record every creative idea I have. Furthermore, I resolve to put at the top of the list those ideas that get strangled before they have a chance to breathe.

I would implore managers everywhere -- especially those with well-developed critical thinking skills -- to adopt an angel's advocate mentality. Before verbalizing a reason why an idea won't work, come up with and voice at least one reason why it WILL work. I began to practice this last week, and it made a tangible difference in one meeting I attended.

I'm thinking about buying a bunch of those costume halos for the next brainstorming session I run. I'm also thinking about buying an angel-shaped stress-reliever and tossing it to anyone I think is being too much of a devil's advocate.

And yes, those ideas are going on my list.


Jamie Notter said...

Hey Ben. It's not just that there are people in organizations with good critical thinking skills--critical thinking is a HUGE component of the philosophical underpinnings of the western world! It goes back 2500 years to Socrates (check out So even when people rationally see the benefit in doing it differently, they'll likely slip back into critical thinking without realizing it. Expect resistance.

Ben said...

I knew that to be true, but didn't know why. Until now: Great insight!

Shawn Z. Lea said...

It made me think of a point in the book I just finished, Improv Wisdom. Too often, in business and in life, we say "yes but..." and we need to change our thinking to "yes and..." to whatever others say. That way, we all get to voice opinons without killing ideas.

Ben said...

We did a "yes, and" exercise in Banff. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It occurred to me that Jamie's comment above is precisely the reason I've never experienced a true brainstorming session. We always slip back into critical thinking mode -- we've been programmed.

Jamie Notter said...

It's also a big reason why "appreciative inquiry" exercises often fall short, in my opinion. Appreciative inquiry is really powerful, but I think it's hard to actually do it (without falling back into critical thinking).