The Value of Being an Angel’s Advocate
Today I had a discussion with a colleague about a very ambitious business plan that he was considering. He described a brutal multi-million dollar up-front startup cost and a very short runway to launch, along with a long sales cycle for the product. When I hear this kind of swing-for-the-fences business plan, I always think to myself “how can this be broken down into interim phases that could work along the way”, since I am one of those guys that likes to work off of the feedback of getting something immediate, if smaller-scale, accomplished. I prodded a little by asking if the runway could be lengthened or if it would really take so much money up front to get started, and was met with resolute explanations about why this particular plan could never work on a smaller scale.
While listening to the response, I realized that we are trained in many ways to play the devil’s advocate. Especially as engineers, we are trained to find holes in theories and root up potential problems with proposed solutions. My colleague was playing devil’s advocate to his own ideas, and I begain almost instinctively to take the opposite side. What if we ignore certain constraints that we assume to be valid? How would the plan change if we didn’t have to worrry about the sales cycle? What if there was no sales cycle? Optimistically laying waste to these assumptions really brought out different elements in the discussion.
I recall reading somewhere that it often took engineers at Google some time working there to un-learn mental models of computational feasibility, since outside of Google many things would be nearly impossible to do. At Google it was the norm. I suppose that playing the angel’s advocate is really about questioning constraints and assumptions to the point of ignoring them for argument’s sake.