How a devil’s advocate can counteract biased thinking

June 16, 20171 minute read

Although “bias” is often used in reference to attitudes that discriminate against a person or group, biased thinking can also get in the way of solving problems and making business decisions. An interview published in the McKinsey Quarterly as a “Case Study in Combating Bias,” relates how one company encouraged “devil’s advocate” thinking to explore options and evaluate alternatives.

The interview, with Bernhard Gunther, CFO of the German electric utility RWE, points out that in many companies a dynamic is in play that encourages people on a team to echo the leader’s point of view – which he refers to as a “champion bias.” There are also other cognitive biases, such as confirmation and status quo biases. By assigning team members – or in some cases, persons outside the company – the role of making the case against obvious answers or current proposals, the result can be more innovative and more effective solutions.

The company coupled the devil’s advocate approach with training for the top 300 company managers focused on self awareness — being more open to dissent, more open to controlled risk-taking and more agile.