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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

The Devil on the Bus

Hug a contrarion

Published: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 16:20

The other day, while skimming LinkedIn, I came across yet another one of those cheesy quotes that, unfortunately, have become all too common on the site: “Surround yourself with people on the same mission.” I proceeded to get into an online discussion with several people who have probably never held a serious leadership position in their careers. I should have known better, or maybe I’ve just spent too many decades in the trenches.

This concept has bothered me for many years, back to when I first read the similar concept floated by Jim Collins of “get the right people on the bus” with the corollary of “get the right people in the right seats.” I’ll give most of you a couple minutes to finish genuflecting since I mentioned the name Jim Collins. Many of you probably still do the same when someone utters the name “Jack Welch,” even if you know of his hypocritical postulations on the value of people.

Jim Collins’ metaphor is well-intended, but is often misinterpreted to mean that everyone must be perfectly aligned and share the same thoughts. Similarly, the statement of “surround yourself with people on the same mission” is misinterpreted to mean that everyone must be following the leader no matter what... even if she is leading the flock off a cliff.

In my experience, the people that have helped my organizations progress the most, capitalize on unique opportunities, or address hidden underlying issues, are those that are a little different, a little out of line. I’ve often vehemently disagreed with some of them until I stopped to think about their perspective. Then I, and others on my staff, found value.

Yes there is a fine line between being a contrarian with a unique perspective and someone who is simply negative—and perhaps destructive. It’s definitely more difficult to lead an organization with such people, and it can be frustrating to others in the organization. The natural human desire is to have a calm, positive, aligned environment. Kumbayah... off a cliff.

I’d argue that such unquestioning alignment is even more dangerous than the potential impact of a contrarian crossing the line to destructive negativism. Opportunities may not be discovered, and risks identified and addressed. Organizations that try to root out troublemakers or politicians and scientists that try to squelch debate by calling something “settled” do so at their own risk. Lo and behold, the world is not flat.

A scene in the recent movie World War Z was intriguing along these same lines. We are surprised to learn that Israel is already prepared for the highly unlikely zombie outbreak thanks to a concept called “the tenth man.” Basically, when nine people on Israel’s intelligence directorate (AMAN) are sold on one direction, it is the responsibility of the tenth to investigate and find facts to argue the opposite.

Just a movie? Actually no. The Brookings Institution documented this leadership strategy in a 2007 paper titled “Lessons from Israel’s Intelligence Reforms” which is an interesting read on many levels.

“First, in order to make sure that different and opposing opinions are heard within the Israeli intelligence community, AMAN has a culture of openness, where individuals are expected to voice dissenting opinions. The organizational slogan that reflects this openness is, “Freedom of opinion, discipline in action.” AMAN has two other tools that promote diversity: the “devil’s advocate” office and the option of writing “different opinion” memos.

“The devil’s advocate office ensures that AMAN’s intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think. The office regularly criticizes products coming from the analysis and production divisions, and writes opinion papers that counter these departments’ assessments. The staff in the devil’s advocate office is made up of extremely experienced and talented officers who are known to have a creative, “outside the box” way of thinking. Perhaps as important, they are highly regarded by the analysts. As such, strong consideration is given to their conclusions and their memos go directly to the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, as well as to all major decision makers. The devil’s advocate office also proactively combats group think and conventional wisdom by writing papers that examine the possibility of a radical and negative change occurring within the security environment. This is done even when the defense establishment does not think that such a development is likely, precisely to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios.

“While the devil’s advocate office is an institutional level safeguard against group think, there is also an individual-level safeguard. The analysts themselves are given venues for expressing alternate opinions. Any analyst can author a “different opinion” memo in which he or she can critique the conclusions of his or her department. Senior officers do not criticize analysts who choose to write such memos.”

Sorry about the long excerpt, but it’s valuable. The Israelis aren’t the only ones to embrace this concept.

The term “Devil’s Advocate” actually came from the Roman Catholic church. The formal term was “Promoter of the Faith” and the position was created in 1587 to provide an intentional dissenting perspective when discussing whether to grant sainthood. The Promoter of the Faith was to make an argument for why canonization should not occur. The position and practice was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983. Interestingly, there has been an unprecedented number of canonizations and beatifications since then, including Pope John Paul II.

So what do you do with people in your organization that bring up alternatives, especially in a constructive way? How about those that may not be as deft at doing it in a constructive manner? Do you kick them off the bus? Or do you find them a seat, working with them so they understand how to be constructive and respectful when they dissent, realizing that they are potentially one of the most valuable parts of the organization?

Alignment of mission and being on the same bus does not mean that everyone must always agree. In fact, it’s best if they don’t.

First published May 10, 2014, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


Hooray for contrarions!

Thank for for the article and insight.  As one who typically finds the contrarion seat on the bus, it's refreshing to hear others who agree it is a valuable seat.

Seems to be along the lines of a quote i heard recently, "If great minds think alike, then no one is really thinking" -- author unknown


General Patton warned that, if everybody is thinking alike, nobody is thinking.