Wouldn’t it be wonderful if boards could foresee the obstacles aheadÂ – in time to make the right decisions?
Absent a few sprinkles of fairy dust, using the devil’s advocate technique might assist you in identifying such obstacles. A devil’s advocate (DA) is someone who takes an opposing view to test an idea or project the board is considering. The DA’s job is to ask questions and make the best case possible against the proposal. By responding to the questions and challenges, the board is forced into healthy debate as it considers arguments it might never have thought of had it not been someone’s specific task to challenge the board’s thinking.
Here’s how it works. Select one board member and place an index card marked DA or devil’s advocate in front of that person. Throughout the meeting, this person should ask questions to test the soundness of the decisions the organization is considering.Â
A services center averts disaster
For example, a small suburban nonprofit that provides services to elder adults was considering expanding services to include another age group. At the insistence of one very vocal board member, this 25-year-old agency was wondering if it should use its expertise in day services to assist young people.
After the first meeting using this technique, the board began to pass the DA card around the table, giving more people the opportunity to offer challenges to the proposal on the table – allÂ under the cloak of security the DA card offered.
Through the tough and sometimes tense discussions, board members decided that their goal was "increased" service, not necessarily "expanded" service. By using the DA card over the course of several meetings, the board realized that the additional licensure, insurance, and expertise that the organization would need to offer youth services outweighed the potential benefits. The agency then looked for ways to make it easier to access their offerings, such as providing transportation from a nearby bus depot.
Don’t forget to be nice
Use this technique every meeting or only when an important issue is up for discussion. A couple of caveats: holding the DA card does not give this board member the ability to block or hold decisions from a vote, nor should the board hold it against the designated DA for asking tough questions. You shouldn’t be annoyed with someone whose "job" it is to question the wisdom of an idea…right?