The Devil's Advocate

I do some lawyering for Old Nick on the side, I'll admit. It's interesting, fun, at times controversial - and I love controversy and argument - and hey, even Satan himself has a right to legal representation.

What I'm talking about is playing devil's advocate - picking holes in others' grand visions. It doesn't sound like the nicest thing in the world, because playing devil's advocate is, at root, about criticising things, and our society doesn't like criticism, or indeed anything remotely destructive - even if that criticism is necessary. This article is mainly about something called the 10 Faces of Innovation, otherwise known as marketese with the obligatory grain of truth and even more obligatory bushel of bullshit. I wouldn't even have paid it any attention, were it not for how much it hates devil's advocates. Apparently they discourage innovation by making people think negatively of new ideas.

I say this to the detractors of the devil's advocate: if criticism discourages innovation, chances are a great deal of potential innovators are just building castles in the air and won't stick to their ideas. If it makes people think negatively about new ideas, that just proves that they're easily swayed sheep. It should be easy to turn them.

To a potential innovator with a solid idea (i.e. properly thought through and checked) and skin thicker than wet paper, a devil's advocate shouldn't be a negative force - rather, I'd go as far as to say it's a positive force, and I'd say it encourages innovation. A devil's advocate questions ideas and picks holes in everything, flaws or problems that the creator overlooked and now has to solve. A devil's advocate is a reality-checker: when everyone else is up partying in the castle in the air, the devil's advocate is on the ground and reminding them that, you know, you can't really party on a giant mass of water droplets, much less build a permanent solid structure on the aforementioned mass.

I think that a lot of people don't know the difference between a needless contrarian and a devil's advocate, and that's what causes the problem - that and the thin skin and aversion to criticism our society has as a whole*. Sometimes they overlap - I'm wildly contrarian and pick holes in too many things. But there are differences: namely, devil's advocates know when to stop. If the general concept is fine, they'll look at some of the details. If the details are fixed, they'll look further into them. If those are fixed and overall it looks fine, they'll probably stop. A contrarian, by contrast, will keep on arguing about what colour the final product needs to be painted and about how many cute little fins to glue on - in other words, the bits that are just so meaningless it's not funny and which can probably be worked out once people actually start working on the project.

*A footnote: Some among you might wish to say that I have thin skin and aversion to criticism - I know that kind of generalisation gets bloggers in trouble with each other. Some might like to point out something I've missed and play devil's advocate to me. Some of you might just want to sell Viagra knockoffs. In any case, feel free to post whatever rebuttals you want here - I'm open to them and don't mind revising the post. Just a warning: with me, what you reap is what you sow; in a less clich├ęd manner, the tone of your comment determines the tone of my reply. Just a little something to think about before you try and flame me out of existence.

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