Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 3;   January 16, 2019: Guidelines for Curmudgeon Teams

Guidelines for Curmudgeon Teams


Last updated: March 19, 2019

The curmudgeon team is a subgroup of a larger team. Their job is to strengthen the team's conclusions and results by raising thorny issues that cause the team to reconsider the path it's about to take. In this way they help the team avoid dead ends and disasters.
Egyptian forces cross a bridge over the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973, during the Arab-Israeli War

Egyptian forces cross a bridge over the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973, during the Arab-Israeli War. Photo from "President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War." Courtesy U. S. Central Intelligence Agency.

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 proposals
basic 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Judging Others  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo 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!


[Kaplan 2017]
William Kaplan. Why Dissent Matters: Because Some People See Things The Rest of Us Miss, Toronto: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017. An excerpt is available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would 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.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

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.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

A team raises a wall of a new home sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentWorkplace Barn Raisings
Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
The Stevens Memorial Library in Ashburnham, MassachusettsTake Charge of Your Learning
Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.
Part of one of the tunnel boring machines used to build the tunnel under the English ChannelForward Backtracking
The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
Cherry blossoms, some open, some closedContributions, Open and Closed
We can classify contributions to discussions according to the likelihood that they stimulate new thought. The more open they are, the more they stimulate new thought. How can we encourage open contributions?

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalAnd on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

Coaching services

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:

Reprinting this article

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

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.