Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Chief Devil's Advocate role in KM

One of the biggest impediments to learning in an organisation is GroupThink.

 After all - if we all agree we are correct, we have nothing to learn, right?

In this blog post I explored the concept of a Knowledge Bubble - a group-think barrier which refuses to admit any knowledge contrary to that of the group (the classic example being the Bush Administration who, convinced that Saddam Hussein was the primary threat, refused to countenance warnings about Osama Bin laden). People inside the knowledge bubble are convinced they are correct, and immune to learning or to contradictory knowledge.

But if Group-think is such a potent threat to KM, whose job is it to prick the Knowledge Bubbles?

Thanks to Vince Polley for forwarding this interesting post from Tech Crunch called "The VP of Devil's Advocacy" - which might just have the answer.

The answer (and here the blog post quotes from the movie World War Z) is
"The tenth man. If nine of us look at the same information and arrive at the exact same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start thinking with the assumption that the other nine are wrong".
This is an illustration from Hollywood, but it is based on a real group - the Devils Advocates Office in Israeli intelligence, described here as follows
The devils advocates office ensures intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think. The office regularly criticises products coming from the analysis and production divisions, and writes opinion papers that counter these department's assessments. The staff in the devils advocate office is made up of extremely experienced and talented officers who are known to have a creative "out of the box" way of thinking".
The Devils Advocates Office is an excellent and systematic defence against the perils of group-think. An alternative approach, taken by many project management organisations, is what they call "The Black Hat review" - a destructive review questioning the assumptions underlying a proposal.

When you think about some of the crazy decisions taken by companies, and the even crazier ones taken by governments, it makes you think that this sort of systematic challenge should be institutionalised more often.

Perhaps more organisations should have a VP of Devils Advocacy, a Chief Black Hat, or a Director of Challenge, to act as "The Tenth Man"

Someone whose role and accountability is to be the Chief Pricker of the Knowledge Bubbles.

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