Formalizing the Devil's Advocate Role in the Classroom

By Sherrie Human,
Department of Management Entrepreneurship

What do the following two questions have in common? The first question, which comes from the New Venture Creation course in which students write a business plan for a new venture idea, asks "How would you as an employer react if you discovered that one of your key employees was starting a business ?on the side? instead of focusing his or her energies on your company?"

The second question, which comes from the graduate level Interpersonal Skills course, asks "How can you develop a new interpersonal skill of probing for information before solving problems, when your natural preference is solving problems first, then asking questions?" What these questions have in common is that they were expressed to students in the classroom not by myself, the instructor, but by an outside visitor and student peer, respectively, playing the role of devil's advocate.

A devil's advocate role is typically played by an individual who provides alternative perspectives and solutions to problems, frequently challenging group assumptions. The devil's advocate role has long been known in business and industry to help improve group and organizational decision making. Thus, I reasoned that formally incorporating this role into classroom discussions and presentations could have the same effect in the educational environment as well.

Over the past several semesters I have formally incorporated the technique -- the devil's advocate role -- into my management and entrepreneur-ship classes. While specific activities and goals of the role may vary depending on class content, general goals and behaviors of the classroom devil's advocates are similar. For instance, I ask individuals, whether student peers or invited guests, who play the devil's advocate role to help move a group discussion to areas perhaps not considered, or to issues that challenge a prevailing sentiment or "groupthink." The following describes two ways in which the devil's advocate has been incorporated into my classes.

In the entrepreneurship New Venture Creation course, students prepare a complete plan for an actual business idea in the Cincinnati area, including marketing, financial and operational components. In teams, students perform market research for their business idea, and designate an actual Cincinnati location appropriate for the business on which they can develop financial projections. Through this process, students develop self-awareness and communication skills, as well as research, functional business and problem solving skills. However, if they were developing this business plan "for real" they would also need to present their plan to potential investors and verbally defend their start-up decisions such as location, pricing, and entry strategies.  
To simulate this latter experience, students present their business plans at the end of the semester to the class and one or two "devil's advocates." The devil's advocates are individuals invited for their experience in the specific industries on which the student teams worked. For instance, last semester, three student teams worked on electronic commerce or internet business ideas, so the devil's advocates invited for their presentations were an investor who had funded several internet companies, and an entrepreneur actively involved in his own e-commerce venture. The devil's advocates receive a 2-page executive summary of the business plan at least one week prior to the presentations so they are ready to probe students on their business ideas, much like a banker or potential investor might do if approached by an entrepreneur.  

Student teams present their business plan in 15 minutes (a typical amount of time for a potential funder to listen, if you are lucky), then have 15 minutes for other students and the devil's advocates to ask questions. Questions range from "What about adequate easy parking for your customers since the location you?ve selected has always had problems with access to parking?" to the earlier question regarding starting a business "on the side" while currently employed. The devil's advocate role in this case provides  students with alternative approaches and ideas based on the business experiences of those playing the role.  

Students taking the New Venture Creation course (undergraduate, traditional and executive MBA) indicate they learn several things from the devil's advocate  experience, including how to think and communicate effectively on their feet, how to intellectually debate decisions, and how to defend their ideas and research in a professional manner.  They also learn that it is advisable (albeit humbling) to get a business idea "picked apart" by experienced people before investing time, energy and money (theirs or others) in a business idea. I invite Xavier alumni with relevant experience to be devil's advocates as often as possible, and have found that they not only enjoy coming back to campus for the experience, but often discover that they learn something as well from the student research and presentations.

I use the devil's advocate role a bit differently in an MBA course titled Interpersonal Skills. As a course focused on developing managerial skills, students frequently practice different approaches to handling conflict and diverse opinions. I introduce the concept of the devil's advocate in the classroom by asking the students "which of you tend to be ?natural? devils advocates?," meaning those individuals who prefer to probe and challenge group thinking naturally. Typically, at least thirty percent of an MBA class raises their hands.

We then discuss how a devil's advocate role can provide a positive contribution to group decision making as long as the challenges go beyond simply disagreeing (which can stop productive decision making) and instead provide alternative ideas or solutions (which moves decision making along). This prompts a discussion of "what behaviors are included in an effective devil's advocate role?" I then ask students to rotate practicing the devil's advocate role throughout the course, so that those who do not prefer to challenge group assumptions get experience in that role, and those who prefer playing the devil's advocate practice responding to others? challenges to their ideas.  
We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having the devil's advocate role in the decision making process, but through classroom practice they experience these issues, learn specific techniques to minimize disadvantages, and have the opportunity to role play their non-preferred approach. Throughout the course, students reflect and apply class learning in journal writing assignments, and often comment that they not only learn from each other as well as from the instructor, but also learn how to effectively rotate the devil's role among team members in their own work setting.

For someone interested in applying a formal devil's advocate role in the classroom, I will suggest the following:

  1. Prepare students for the devil's advocate role by discussing effective and ineffective approaches to playing the role (e.g., offering alternative ideas or solutions versus frequent disagreement that blocks decision making).
  2. Discuss effective and ineffective approaches to responding to the devil's advocate (e.g., asking probing questions versus unquestioned defense of ideas).
  3. Review with students the appropriate response behaviors to the devil's advocate role including professionalism, task orientation, and humor.
  4. Rotate the devil's advocate role in the classroom in both small group and entire class activities.
  5. If you use outside guests as devil's advocates, reinforce their role upon arrival by discussing the reasons for their visit (i.e., to challenge group assumptions) with the entire class present, so everyone has the same expectations. This will put the visitors at ease with their role, since they now know the students expect some challenges, and it creates a class mindset that expects some challenges to occur.
  6. Finally, if you use outside guests as devil's advocates, consider inviting Xavier alumni with experience relevant for your particular learning objectives.
In sum, the devil's advocate role provides students the opportunity to practice a
valuable set of skills that apply to organizations of all types and sizes. Diverse opinions occur in all settings, and one way to teach students techniques to effectively handle diverse ideas and challenges is by formally integrating the devil's advocate role into the classroom setting. While many students play the devil's advocate role naturally, I have found that formalizing the role helps students learn effective behaviors for the role and allows students to openly practice non-preferred behaviors they might ordinarily defer to those who play the role more naturally.

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