Friday, September 9, 2016

Facilitating Problem Solving: A Case Study Using the Devil's Advocacy Technique

By: Ryan T. Hartwig


This article presents a case study of the devil's advocate (DA) method of analysis. The purpose of this study is to analyze the efficacy of DA in facilitating group problem-solving and decision-making in a real-world situation. Ryan T. Hartwig, the researcher, begins by briefly explaining that the process of DA is played out when, "one group member or a subgroup critiques a group's (or another subgroup's) plan by raising questions about the plan's assumptions and consequences, but does not offer a counter-plan". The participants in this study are six staff members of the Life Planning Center (LPC) at a university located in Denver, Colorado. Hartwig explains that the LPC is newly-staffed, and therefore is experiencing complications in functioning within the university. The challenge bestowed upon the six staff members, then, is to utilize DA in developing a plan on how to motivate their university's academic administrators to publish accurate course rotations in a timely manner.   

Hartwig's DA method is similar to the method that he provides in Figure 1 below, with a couple exceptions. Before splitting the groups into two subgroups,  Hartwig ties in the first two steps of Gouran and Hirokawa's (1999) functional decision-making technique by defining the problem and establishing criteria for an acceptable solution with the group as a whole. The second way Hartwig strays away from the process in Figure 1 is by omitting Round Two and the Subsequent Rounds altogether. Instead, Hartwig has both groups work together to produce a final recommendation. This process lasted about 95 minutes. 


After the process was over, each participant took a survey about both Hartwig and the DA process. The survey answers were assessed using a 5-point Likert scale.  The highest scores pertaining to the DA process, both averaging 4.5, dealt with DA's ability to facilitate the groups' abilities to make recommendations and critiques, and in revealing new recommendations and assumptions that were not thought of previously. The lowest score, averaging 3.33, came from the group's opinions on the recommendations and assumptions that the groups brought up during DA. Overall, the participants viewed that DA's major strengths are that it allows participants to think outside of the box, and that it enables discussion through conflict. The participants found DA's major weaknesses to be that it relies on opinions that participants may refuse to budge from, and that it is difficult for some participants to handle discussions revolved around conflict. 

Hartwig concluded that this method of DA stimulated good group discussion, generated good ideas, and provided the participants with useful recommendations for their problem. Hartwig recommends that DA should be paired with Gouran and Hirokawa's (1996) functional theory of group decision-making, or a similar process.


Both Hartwig and the participants mentioned that this use of DA was not extensive enough, therefore, it is difficult to gauge if the method could have been more productive given more time. This plays into the fact that Hartwig did not truly utilize his own definition of DA, since he changed the steps after step one. Hartwig also divulged his own recommendations to the problem during DA, which could have tampered with the outcome of the process. Based off of these critiques, it is hard to say if this case study qualifies as a true analysis of DA. 

Source: Hartwig, R. (2010). Facilitating problem solving: A case study using the devil's advocacy technique. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, 10, 17-31. Retrieved from  


  1. I do think that this was an interesting article about DA and its use within a group setting. On the other hand, I agree that the depth of the study could have been more extensive. The fact that Hartwig did not fully use his definition of DA and created his own recommendations afterwards was concerning.

    1. Yes I agree, Chad. When I first began reading it I thought that the case study would be more extensive, and that it would follow the DA guidelines it has listed.

  2. I would agree with Chad that the article is interesting in regards to DA. I would agree with Hartwig in that DA should be focused on real life objectives and not laboratory based projects, due to a need for real responsibility and accountability to evaluate effectiveness and efficiency better. As Schlenk and Cosier post in page 21 paragraph 3, the real world is somewhere between the initial plan, and the DA counter plan. I believe more modern research is needed to extensively evaluate DA in the modern era. I think one of the biggest concerns with DA with this paper is Hartwig's recommendations particularly in regards to time. For sometimes time is not on your side in a real world application.

    1. Yes, it certainly would be beneficial to have additional research on DA.