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The dialectical approach (Mason and Mitroff, 1981) uses creative conflict to help identify and challenge assumptions to create new perceptions. Firstly the devil’s advocate approach is useful in exposing underlying assumptions, but has a tendancy emphasise the negative, whereas dialectical inquiry has a more balanced approach. (See also Idea Advocate )
The Devil’s Advocate
An administrator advocates a plan, which is then studied by an appointed individual who takes on the role of an adverse critic, examining the proposal looking for inconsistencies, inaccuracies and irrelevancies.
The evaluation may be enclosed in a report, or a live confrontation conference may be set up between the administrator and the critic, with key decision makers as observers.
Finally, the decision makers can then accept, modify or re-develop the proposal.
- Formation of proposal and counter-proposal groups
- Review group set-up, which contains the senior manager, involved.
The proposal group should develop a plan, compiling a short list of key assumptions underlying the plan; this is given to the counter-proposal group.
The counter-proposal groups should endeavour to develop a counter-plan, looking at each assumption, breaking them down, to invent a plausible counter-assumption, and using it to surface new data, re-interpret old data, and devise a counter-plan.
The Review group is presented plans from the proposal and counter-proposal groups. Either side outlining data and assumptions they consider important and probing weaknesses of the other side’s plan. A facilitator maintains goodwill and prevents the competitiveness becoming destructive. The review group are looking for further unmentioned assumptions that may be central to the theory behind the problem. Should arguments become repetitive the facilitator ends the debate and there is a break to socialise and reconnect on a personal level.
The total group now work together, led by the review group their aim is to generate a list of agreed upon fundamental assumptions and the generation of a new plan. All the assumptions that featured highly in the debate are pooled. Unacceptable assumptions are weeded out, and where necessary, competing assumptions are either re-worked so as to be acceptable to both sides, or simple tests are devised to decide between them. The group will need the skills and attitudes needed for coping with muddled problems – finding the exact problem, representing alternative maps, and employing humour, confidence and enthusiasm to maintain the process.