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The Ten Faces of Innovation

We’ve all been there. The pivotal meeting where you push forward a new idea or proposal you’re passionate about. A fast-paced discussion leads to an upwelling of support that seems about to reach critical mass. And then, in one disastrous moment, your hopes are dashed when someone weighs in with those fateful words: “Let me just play Devil’s Advocate for a minute…”

Having invoked the awesome protective power of that seemingly innocuous phrase, the speaker now feels entirely free to take potshots at your idea, and does so with complete impunity. Because they’re not really your harshest critic. They are essentially saying, “The Devil made me do it.” They’re removing themselves from the equation and sidestepping individual responsibility for the verbal attack. But before they’re done, they’ve torched your fledgling concept.

The Devil’s Advocate gambit is extraordinary but certainly not uncommon, since it strikes so regularly in the project rooms and boardrooms of corporate America. What’s truly astonishing is how much punch is packed into that simple phrase. In fact, the Devil’s Advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today. What makes this negative persona so dangerous is that it is such a subtle threat. Every day thousands of great new ideas, concepts, and plans are nipped in the bud by Devil’s Advocates.

Why is this persona so damning? Because the Devil’s Advocate encourages idea-wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective, one that sees only the downside, the problems, the disasters-in-waiting. Once those floodgates open, they can drown a new initiative in negativity.

Why should you care? And why do I believe this problem is so important? Because innovation is the lifeblood of all organizations, and the Devil’s Advocate is toxic to your cause. This is no trivial matter. There is no longer any serious debate about the primacy of innovation to the health and future strength of a corporation. Even the staid British publication The Economist recently claimed, “Innovation is now recognized as the single most important ingredient in any modern economy.”

Doubleday 2005. 80,000 copies sold in hardback in the U.S. Published in fifteen languages. Required reading in business schools worldwide.

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