Tuesday 30 July 2019

Does KM need an official Devil's Advocate role?

KM is beset by cognitive biases such as Groupthink. Maybe the Devil's Advocate role is needed to help combat this?

The biggest impediments to learning in an organisation are mental impediments, driven by cognitive biases.  These include the confirmation bias (where we only accept evidence that confirms what we think), and GroupThink; aka conformity bias (where the desire for harmony or conformity leads group members to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints).

If you combine these two, you end up with a powerful immovable force, whereby a group becomes entrenched in their thinking.  People inside the knowledge bubble are convinced they are correct, and immune to learning or to new knowledge that contradicts what they think. They cannot learn. They are stuck.  This results in a Knowledge Bubble -  the classic example being the Bush Administration who, convinced that Saddam Hussein was the primary threat, refused to countenance warnings about Osama Bin laden.

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

This interesting post from Tech Crunch called "The VP of Devil's Advocacy" might just have the answer.

One solution (and here the Tech Cruch 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".
The original scene is below.

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 or a planned project. Often the Project Management Office takes this Black Hat role, which can counter the wishful thinking that besets many projects.

In sports, Bill Simmons calls this role "The VP of common sense"

I'm becoming more and more convinced that every professional sports team needs to hire a Vice President of Common Sense, someone who cracks the inner circle of the decision-making process along with the GM, assistant GM, head scout, head coach, owner and whomever else. One catch: the VP of CS doesn't attend meetings, scout prospects, watch any film or listen to any inside information or opinions; he lives the life of a common fan. They just bring him in when they're ready to make a big decision, lay everything out and wait for his unbiased reaction.

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 VP of common sense, 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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