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Ideas To Combat 'The Devil’s Advocate' in Sales Environments

Nicki Weiss

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In the past month, I’ve attended three different meetings where people introduced new ideas. The discussions that followed were lively, the ideas gathered support, and we started talking about next steps. And each time, in one disastrous moment, someone weighed in with: “Let me just play devil's advocate for a minute. . . "

Why is this persona so damning? Because a devil's advocate assumes the most negative possible perspective, one that sees only the downside, the problems, the disasters-in-waiting. People who play devil's advocate are mounting a verbal attack without taking responsibility for it. And attacks they are. Before they’re finished, they've torched your fledgling concept.

If your company wants to build an environment where teams are fully engaged in positive change, and where the culture is rich in creativity and renewal, everyone will need to hear new insights and new viewpoints. Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. People make it happen through their imagination, willpower, and perseverance. And whether you are a team member, a group leader, or an executive, your only real path to innovation is through people. You can't really do it alone.

You need other voices around the table that are equally as strong as that of the Devil’s Advocate.

In his new book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelly, General Manager of design firm Ideo, outlines a number of roles people can play that will foster innovation and new ideas and act as effective counters to the naysayers.

Here are three potent roles that you and others can play to keep ideas from being trashed:

These ‘roles’ are driven by the idea that no matter how successful a company currently is, no one in it can afford to be complacent.

Anthropologists brings new learning and insights into the organization by observing human behavior and developing a deep understanding of how customers interact physically and emotionally with products, services, and their surroundings.

Experimenters play with new ideas continuously, and learn by trial and error. Experimenters thrive in environments where failure is acceptable.

Cross-Pollinators explore other industries and cultures, then adapt what they have found to fit the unique needs of their own companies. Here’s an example: A Japanese businesswoman was taken with the generic beer she found in a U. S. supermarket. She brought the idea home, and it eventually became the “no brand" Mujirushi Ryohin chain, a 300-store, billion-dollar retail empire.

So when someone says, “Let me play devil's advocate for a minute" and starts to smother a fragile new idea, another person in the room may be emboldened to speak up and say, “Let me be an anthropologist for a moment, because I personally have watched our customers suffering silently with this issue for months, and this new idea just might help them. "

And if that one voice gives courage to others, maybe someone else will add, “Let's think like an experimenter for a moment. We could prototype this idea in a week and get a sense of whether we're on to something good. " The devil's advocate may never go away, but on a good day, people who assume other roles can keep him in his place.

Once employees in a company get the hang of taking on the devil’s advocate - with respect and, hopefully, humour – the company will benefit from the wide possibilities that open up.

Talk Back: I’d love to hear your ideas about how you handle company naysayers. Please share them with me by pinging me an e-mail at

Nicki Weiss is an internationally recognized Certified Professional Coach, Master Trainer, and workshop leader. She brings to her work 25 years of experience with corporate sa1es executives, small to medium size entrepreneurial business leaders, and sa1es teams of all shapes and sizes.

Sign up for her award winning ezine - Sa1esWise - for great tips on finding, retaining, and developing ideal clients and sales teams at


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