Boardroom angels and demons

Mats Lundkvist business transformation

Complacency is the vulture that sits menacingly on the business leader’s shoulder.

History is littered with the stories of those that failed to heed its portents – think Blackberry and Kodak to name but two. Complacency, bred from success, kills innovation and sows fertile ground with the seeds of failure.

Inspired business leadership requires a healthy dose of paranoia – if you believe the competition is out to get you, you are probably right. Nothing combats complacency more effectively than paranoia but paranoia needs a voice at the boardroom table.

One of the most effective tools in the leader’s business bag of tricks is the Devil’s Advocate, the naysayer who refuses to accept the status quo, rails against consensus and defies commonly held logic and common sense.

For those that have seen it, there is a scene in the recent movie blockbuster World War Z where our hero (Brad Pitt) flies to Israel in search of answers to the Zombie plague. Jerusalem is the last of the world’s major cities to hold out against the marauders. Why?

In their paranoia-driven wisdom, the Israeli Government had many years before appointed a senior official whose sole task was to ’think the unthinkable’ and plan accordingly. Fortunately, against the collective view, he anticipated a Zombie plague and with remarkable foresight built an impregnable wall around the city.

The analogy is extreme but the principle is sound, founded on historical precedent. For nearly 400 years until 1983 the Devil’s Advocate was a canon lawyer appointed by the Catholic Church to argue (often unreasonably) with God’s Advocate, another lawyer, against the canonization of any candidate. Only when fully tested could the candidate’s elevation to sainthood be fully endorsed.

In similar fashion, it is often only when businesses are challenged that they dig deepest to innovate and drive out solutions and strategies that might previously have been considered impossible.

By definition, a business leader should be the ‘yes’ guy who will drive the business forward.

But every Yes Guy should have by his side the No Guy whose role is to take the opposing view, challenge convention and, by default, reinforce sound decision-making. In larger companies there is often someone who fulfills this role naturally but less so in smaller business where decision-making is vested in one or two individuals.

If you’re lacking a No Guy, you should give serious thought to appointing someone whether its at business management level or just for the purpose of getting the most out of a strategy meeting or planning workshop.

If the devil is in the detail, then the Devil’s Advocate is often the person best placed to flush it out. The results may surprise you.