Back in March of 2001, I suggested that Curmudgeon Teams could be an aid in group decision-making. Although the idea was original to me, I've since learned that it isn't original. And experience with clients since then has given me opportunities (read: created the need) to elaborate the concept in the level of detail needed to actually use it. In this post, I'll review the idea, fill in some of the history I've learned about the idea, and record some of those missing details.
What Curmudgeon Teams are
Here's the brief description I provided in "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001:
To reach sound decisions, we need vigorous debate. Yet, in some organizations, questioning proposals that have lots of momentum can feel very unsafe, especially if powerful people propose them.
The "Curmudgeon Team" is a possible workaround. When you're considering a proposal, appoint several people to team up to oppose the idea. Make it their job to ask the difficult questions and to pose the difficult what-ifs. This approach invigorates the debate, and it's a lot of fun, especially in costume. To avoid any long-lasting effect on individuals, rotate this job on a monthly basis.
So the Formalizing the role of questioning
proposals that are gaining momentum
provides safety to those who raise
questions about those proposalsbasic idea is that formalizing the role of questioning proposals that are gaining momentum provides safety to those who raise questions about those proposals. That safety enables them to raise more difficult questions, which filters out weak proposals and makes sound proposals even stronger. Curmudgeon Teams can also mitigate the risk of several different group process dysfunctions, including groupthink, shared information bias, and Trips to Abilene.
History of Curmudgeon Teams
The idea of Curmudgeon Teams was original to me, but it wasn't original. It has a history that includes the canonization decisions of the Roman Catholic Church before 1979. The role, which was called "Devil's Advocate," was responsible for arguing against the canonization of candidates for sainthood. The purpose of the role was to ensure that canonized persons were truly worthy of sainthood.
In a second example of the use of formalization of skepticism, the history of the function also includes the report of the Israeli Agranat Commission that investigated the decisions that led to Israel's failure to anticipate the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Following the surprise attack on Israel in 1973, the commission recommended changes in military and intelligence doctrine. As described by William Kaplan in his book, Why Dissent Matters [Kaplan 2017], "The Tenth Man is a devil's advocate. If there are 10 people in a room and nine agree, the role of the tenth is to disagree and point out flaws in whatever decision the group has reached." Read an excerpt of Kaplan's book here.
Other forms of the role include Red Teams and white hat hackers.
Guidelines for using Curmudgeon Teams
It isn't enough to merely create the Curmudgeon Team and let them have at it. Using Curmudgeon Teams can be tricky, because the role is inherently oppositional. Here are some guidelines that manage the risks and enable the Curmudgeon Team to make valuable contributions.
- Rotate Curmudgeon Team membership
- To manage the risk that relationships with Curmudgeon Team members might be damaged, rotate membership in the Curmudgeon Team, either on a periodic basis, or from decision to decision. Membership rotation propagates appreciation for the challenges of the role, thereby enhancing safety for Curmudgeon Team members.
- Provide equal access to information
- Curmudgeon Team members need access to all relevant information any member of the larger group has. Delaying access, limiting access, or making it inconvenient to access compared to the access of the rest of the group can put Curmudgeon Team members at a disadvantage. That can limit their ability to perform their function. It can also reduce their credibility with the rest of the group.
- Identify Curmudgeon Team members
- At the outset of any group discussion, real or virtual, the facilitator or chair introduces the Curmudgeon Team members as members of the Curmudgeon Team. This reminds the other group members that the contributions of the Curmudgeon Team members are purposefully skeptical, and that the role is important and valued.
- Facilitate group discussions with fairness in mind
- In live group discussions, real or virtual, the facilitator ensures that Curmudgeon Team members have access to the discussion that is no more limited than the access provided to anyone else. For example, the Curmudgeon Team members aren't relegated to dial-in access when other group members have face-to-face access.
- Access parity is necessary because the contributions of the Curmudgeon Team members are very likely to be unpopular. Providing inferior access to the discussion communicates the latent message that the Curmudgeon Team contributions are not only unpopular, but also of low value.
- Create Curmudgeon Team reports with equal stature
- If the group is charged with producing deliverables in written form, the Curmudgeon Team members are empowered to produce their own deliverables in written form of stature equal to the larger group's report. That is, the Curmudgeon Team report is not an appendix to the group's report. It stands on its own as a separate document. The two deliverables are produced in parallel, with each set of authors having equal access to the other authors' work. In some instances, some people might contribute to both reports.
- Choose qualified people
- Raising thorny issues that the group must take seriously does require a high level of competence and thorough understanding of the substance of the discussion. (See "Asking Brilliant Questions," Point Lookout for November 22, 2006) Members of the Curmudgeon Team must prepare to play the curmudgeon role at a high level.
- Question substance, not people
- The more valuable contributions of the Curmudgeon Team are in the form of issues raised about the substance of the discussion. Rarely is it helpful to raise issues about the professionalism, competence, or motivations of participants in the discussion. Legitimate questions of personal performance are best presented in private to the team lead or to cognizant managers.
- Be strictly respectful
- Every group abides by a set of norms regarding respectful discussion. Norms vary from group to group, and what passes for respect in one group might seem disrespectful in another. Still, every group has norms. Because members of the Curmudgeon Team are expressing inherently oppositional views, they would be wise to adhere to group norms more strictly than do general members of the group.
Because every group's microculture is unique, some of these guidelines might not fit for your group. Or your group might need additional guidelines that are missing from this collection. Experience will reveal the needed adjustments. When you discuss possible adjustments, remember to designate members of a Curmudgeon Team for that discussion. Top Next Issue
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- What Haven't I Told You?
- When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to
avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering
this kind of knowledge more systematically.
- Help for Asking for Help
- When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How
we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
- The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
- A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion,
the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads
us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- Intentionally Unintentional Learning
- Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open
to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have
far greater impact.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.