Relating to Ideation--Part Two


In the first installment of this two-part series, we looked at how ideation yields powerful results that transcend particular industries.  In part two, we’ll take a look at behavioral differences that either drive successful ideation sessions or, in some sad cases, sabotage them. While in the course of normal social situations we may accept certain behaviors and even celebrate them, certain behavioral frameworks can run entirely contrary to the goals for effective ideation, leading to watered-down results that companies can’t even utilize post-session.

The Ethos of Improv versus the Devil’s Advocate

Great ideation emulates some human interactions and behaviors, while it eschews others.  For example, the best brainstorming sessions mimic the positive thinking and, better yet, positioning or opening up to thinking, as the world of improvisational comedy.

On the other hand, ideation sessions are increasingly hampered by the presence of Devil’s Advocate-type personalities, which basically run antithetical to the premise of ideation. Instead of a “let’s see where this takes us” approach, Devil’s Advocates tend to put the brakes on discussions where they fear the possible outcomes by cloaking themselves in this negative philosophical stance.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s, Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking, the author explores the art of improvisational comedy as a way to train one’s thinking in new directions. The most important rule of improvisational comedy is the idea of agreement.  In order to create humor, the characters must accept everything that happens to them and around them, by virtue of the actions and words of the other characters in the mix.

As Gladwell states, “In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action.  All the improvisation teacher has to do is reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers.  Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill.  Good improvisers develop action.”

Similar to the bad improviser who blocks action, someone who invokes the role of Devil’s Advocate can shut down the creative process. Tom Kelley discusses the role of these black hat thinkers, who are, in truth, the destroyers of innovation, in his work, The Ten Faces of Innovation.


“The Devil’s Advocate persona may be the biggest innovation killer in America today… It encourages idea wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective, one that sees only downsides, problems, disasters-in-waiting,” Kelly states.  “By invoking the protective power of ‘Let me just play Devil’s Advocate for a minute’ the speaker is now entirely free to take potshots at the idea with complete immunity.  Essentially saying, ‘The Devil made me do it.’”


Ultimately, the Devil’s Advocate stops short.  In an ideation session, you need to balance constructive criticism based on a deep understanding of the problem with encouraging your team to move toward a better solution.



Samantha Harr