The VP of Devil’s Advocacy

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On The Importance Of Forgetting

In the 2013 film, World War Z, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is riding through the streets of Jerusalem as Jurgen Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken) explains how the city was able to avoid the zombie apocalypse:

The tenth man. If nine of us look at the same information and arrive at the exact same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start thinking with the assumption that the other nine are wrong.

While Hollywood may have simplified the idea a bit for the screen, this is apparently a very real tactic which Israel has used in the past. Their military has a unit often referred to as the “devil’s advocate office” [PDF]. And yes, the goal is simply to avoid falling prey to group think.

I’ve thought about this concept quite a bit over the years. While the stakes may not be as high as war, or even zombies, I’m constantly surprised when companies launch a product that seems doomed to failure right out of the gate.

We’ve seen a lot of these launches in recent years. Microsoft’s Surface RT. Samsung’s Smart Watches. Google’s Nexus Q. Apple’s Maps. All great examples. Each was quite clearly a disaster waiting to happen to many on the outside. So why was it so hard for those on the inside, those closest to the projects, to see the obvious?

The answer, it seems, is that most of those people were likely too close to the projects to see what was right in front of them. They fell victim to group think, or worse, they started to rationalize their own bad projects.

The latest case in point: the Amazon Fire Phone.

The reviews have been brutal. The hardware is mediocre. The software is worse. The apps are non-existent. And the core points of differentiation seem more like gimmicks. The list of grievances goes on. But most of this was predicted before anyone had even seen the device! And yet, Amazon still launched it.

Maybe Amazon will be able to turn this piece of coal into a… slightly polished piece of coal, if they promote the hell out of it on a little site called Amazon.com. But the early returns at AT&T stores promoting the Fire Phone don’t look good. At all.

It sure seems like Amazon, and really, every company could benefit from some sort of Vice President of Devil’s Advocacy. That is, someone who looks at a product just about to launch and points out all the reasons it will fail.

It was said the Steve Jobs served a similar role throughout his years at Apple. He’d be presented with a product and more often than not, he’d rip it apart. He was even known to cancel launches at the last minute if he didn’t feel like something was up to snuff.

But Jobs was also undoubtedly deeply involved in the creation of these products. He was the rare visionary who could step back and see the forest through the trees. (And even he had misstepsplenty of them.)

A better way to do this may be to have someone outside the company, a trusted advisor, who is kept in the dark about a new product until that product is ready to launch. Then you bring them in to give honest, unvarnished feedback. Is it a good product or is it a bad one? You need someone who won’t hold back.

Yes, this is what user research is for to some extent. But that clearly breaks down in many situations, like the ones listed above. Or sometimes a product is too top secret to test with outsiders. This needs to be a single person whose opinion is fully trusted. Someone with the power to kill or postpone a launch. A VP of Devil’s Advocacy. A 10th man.

If a product can withstand the honest feedback and all the potential worst-case scenarios this VP of Devil’s Advocacy points out, only then does a product launch. That may mean millions of dollars of work lost in some cases. But it sure seems like it beats the alternative — $900 million write-downs.

About a year ago, as Microsoft blundered their way towards a series of doomed launches, folks wrote to me pointing out both the World War Z reference (and, in turn, the Israeli Defense Force reference), as well as a column noted sports commentator Bill Simmons wrote many years ago for ESPN, suggesting something similar for professional sports:

I’m becoming more and more convinced that every professional sports team needs to hire a Vice President of Common Sense, someone who cracks the inner circle of the decision-making process along with the GM, assistant GM, head scout, head coach, owner and whomever else. One catch: the VP of CS doesn’t attend meetings, scout prospects, watch any film or listen to any inside information or opinions; he lives the life of a common fan. They just bring him in when they’re ready to make a big decision, lay everything out and wait for his unbiased reaction.

If so many parties can arrive at the same conclusion independently of one another (and in wildly different fields), there’s clearly something to this idea. How many bad products have to ship before we see such a position in tech? After all, it worked against zombies.

(Sort of.)