We’ve all been there – that moment when you are ready to share a new idea or proposal. It’s an innovative product, service, or process that will unlock new value and fulfill new or existing market needs. You see it as a big opportunity for your team and organization.
A fast-paced discussion leads to an upwelling of support. You feel the sense of urgency in your team members. And then, someone weighs in with the fateful words:
“Let me just play Devil’s Advocate for a minute…”
All too often in our organizations, the voice of Devil’s Advocate comes from a place of deep fear. A fear that accepting others’ ideas is an admission of weakness, or about what change might mean to them.
If the intention of the Devil’s Advocate is self-serving, then what can follow is disaster. Your big idea, ripped apart. People taking pot shots, leaving the proposal full of holes. A potentially innovative product, service, or process is nipped in the bud.
Worse still, a psychologically unsafe team is created–an environment where people feel unable to express ideas for fear of being ridiculed and rejected. A team where the potential to collaborate to innovate is threatened.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The voice of Devil’s Advocate—or sceptic—can be valuable. When it comes from a place of deep curiosity, this persona can lead us to challenge our beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives. It can uncover blind spots, inspiring us to be even more innovative.
If we know how to work with it, we can use the appearance, or even the potential appearance of Devil’s Advocate to our advantage.
We can choose to engage in new roles. Roles that empower innovation rather than stifle. Roles that can speak to the concerns of the Devil’s Advocate.
Step into innovation by playing a different role. Wearing the hat of a Learner, Organizer or Builder changes the dance. Even when Devil’s Advocate is edged against us, we can move forward.
Step into the role of Learner to humbly create the curiosity that leads to true urgency, challenge your own worldview and become open to new insights.
Step into the role of Organizer to playfully compete for time, attention and resources, working with the budget and red tape to move the idea forward.
Step into the role of Builder to visibly apply insights from the Learner and channel the empowerment of the Organizer.
Within these roles we can draw on the ideas of innovation expert Tom Kelley, and take on a variety of personas
We can bring the ten personas of innovation out to play. Each persona has a unique strength that further builds psychological safety.
The innovation personas include the Caregiver, the Set Designer, and the Storyteller. The Collaborator and Director encourage the team to learn together, while valuing everyone’s input. The Experimenter frames failure as a learning opportunity. The Anthropologist acknowledges limits, authentically sharing what they know and don’t know.
Even better, we can access these allies within ourselves, and call on those we work with who easily step into particular personas. Do you have a Cross-Pollinator, a Hurdler, or an Experience Architect on your team?
Stepping in to different roles and trying on a variety of personas allows us to bring curiosity, playfulness, and commitment to a room. We create a space where people feel not only able to, but also responsible for sharing ideas, asking questions, quickly acknowledging mistakes and raising concerns early and often.
When we step into inner roles and personas with awareness, intention and skill, we allow the emotional space for innovation. We encourage a contagious atmosphere of excitement, hopefulness and confidence. We defuse the potential damage of the Devil’s Advocate and engage the gift of skepticism to reflect and consider. We change the dialogue.
We create the psychological safety (Amy Edmondson, 2001) required for innovation.
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Team members feel confident that the team will not embarrass, belittle, reject, or punish anyone for their contribution. With psychological safety, a team can collaborate to innovate.
This is where it gets really exciting! A psychologically safe team that collaborates to innovate has access to a whole team of innovation allies.
As a change leader, you can help your team collaborate to innovate. By playing different roles and purposefully trying on a variety of personas, with knowledge, awareness, intention, and skill, your team can create a safe and courageous space for innovation.
You will be ready to invite in the sceptics and say, as change leadership expert John Kotter would, “Bring on the lions!”
Kerry Woodcock, Ph.D., leads change for a world of change, She coaches pioneers and influencers to amplify the power of relationship and lead over the edge of change. As Principal of Novalda, she develops change leadership capability in organizations and social systems.