Friday, September 9, 2016

Devil’s Advocacy in Managerial Decision Making


What this report looked to do was to first define what devil’s advocacy (DA) does and how it is supposed to function. Then, it quickly evaluated the merits of DA in laboratory settings and field settings. The evaluation of DA looked at not only DA, but also dialectic inquiry (DI) as well as expert advice (E). DA itself, at its most basic, is a procedure that involves one or several persons who are appointed to raise objections to favored alternatives, challenge underlying assumptions, and potentially present differing ideas. According to the study, the introduction of conflict to challenge previously formed assumptions is the definition of DA that is generally agreed on.

However, while researchers agree on the definition, how the DA goes about their work does not have a wide consensus. First, at what point does the DA intervene in the process? Next, should the DA deride the majority position or should they champion the alternative?  Finally, the whom and how many should play the role are also not agreed on.

According to the results of the field and lab testing, it is agreeded that introduced conflict (as in devil’s advocacy) works. Laboratory studies have found that DA or DI yields better results as opposed to E. How the study functioned is that with three groups, one group received an “expert recommendation” (the E group) another group received the same recommendation but with a critique (the DA group), and a third group received a recommendation, a critique, and another recommendation stemming from the critique (a DA/DI group). Testing of the group’s ability to make strategic decisions showed that the superiority of the DI/DA groups versus the E group was statistically significant. However, the difference between DI/DA was only marginally significant. It did show that conflict introduced into the decision-making  process yielded strong results.

In field tests, tests involving DI as a version that offers a counter-plan against the prevailing expert decision do tend to yield far better results as well. From private sector to public sector, field tests point towards DI, and even just DA alone, having a better chance to produce more options that are novel versus a standard experts opinion. The availability of more options versus the one expert opinion yielded a management group that had a deeper understanding of a problem. Additionally, it reduced the potential for groupthink created by the expert advice. Furthermore, it leads to more alternatives and greater overall satisfaction with the decision brought on by a sense of having considered all the options.


The study concludes with how to employ a devil’s advocate scenario that looks to address the three problems stated earlier. First and one of the more complicated issues, the role of the DA is dependent on the structure and nature of the group. Constraints such as time, structure, and goal all alter how to use the devil’s advocate. If dialectic inquiry is used, it could take a substantial amount of time to construct a counter strategy. If a group already has a great deal of conflict within itself, the advocate can be used to structure the debates to prevent one strategy from receiving more resources than the others strategies receive.

Second, the advocate should make every attempt to avoid advocating for one particular option. This would prevent them from becoming a “carping critic” and ultimately weakening the role of the advocate. This type of devil’s advocate can harm the decision making process and the management’s views of situation. Instead, the advocate should seek to highlight every other option.

Third, concerning the logistics of the advocate, further research is needed. Rotating the advocate around each of the members of the group allows each member to understand the role of the devil’s advocate. However, if one person is selected, they have the chance to become a more effective advocate. As to which option is stronger, it remains to be discovered.

Finally, and separate from the three problems, underlying all of the study is the ultimate need for management to be open to the devil’s advocate or dialectic inquiry methods. In order for the devil’s advocate’s work to have any impact, their role must be taken seriously and legitimate thought must be given to what the advocate states. This need ultimately falls on management’s ability to deal with and accept that there may be multiple ways of dealing with a situation and that their views and ideas are not always correct. Without management’s ability to accept different views, the role of the devil’s advocate would be domesticated or even harmful. However, once caveat is that even in these rigid situations, the devil’s advocate could be used to forcibly breakdown groupthink situations.


The only real piece of criticism that can be made about this report concerns the metrics by which the laboratory experiments were measured against. What constituted a more sound, strategic decision? Granted, information on where to find it was included within the report, but a brief description would have helped to drive home some of the key points of the study a little better.

Source: Schwenk, C. R. (1984). DEVIL'S ADVOCACY IN MANAGERIAL DECISION-MAKING. Journal Of Management Studies, 21(2), 153-168.


  1. Ruark, as you stated above there is a limited amount of consensus on what constitutes DA both in it's practice and in definition; however, given that reality when do you think it could be the most beneficial to use DA and to what extent?

    1. The definition of devil's advocate is well agreed upon. The author tried to fix some of the knowledge gaps concerning how it is put into practice. How it is used is highly dependent on the group it is used in. Primary, the group has to be able to take the advice and role of the DA seriously enough for the DA's suggestions to have any weight in guiding the group to better options. The whole DA practice itself requires some strong understand in the group's purpose and dynamics for it to have any real effect. There are a few factors to consider, but if the DA can play a role in advancing a group to better strategic decisions, then, as lab tests have found, it can be a very good method for achieving better decision making.