Are you looking for a Mentor, Coach, or Consultant? No matter what title you choose, make sure they can also function as a Devil’s Advocate. This is important at all stages of company life, but even more critical at the early stages.

Why do I say this? Early stage companies tend to be smaller, and the teams and skill sets are not very diverse. In many cases, these teams are often made up of people just like the founders and that can create problems. Why?

  • The entire team has drunk the Kool-Aid. They all believe the founder’s vision unconditionally.
  • They focus on what they understand (i.e. cool technology) and avoid what they don’t (i.e. finding customers who will pay).
  • They believe that, “if you build it [cool product], they will come [customers]”.
  • They don’t know what they don’t know, and they are too afraid (or proud) to ask for help.

This is often because

  • They want to maintain appearances.
  • They don’t want to look foolish.
  • They do not want to give up control.

Chunka Mui talks about the need for an explicit Devil’s Advocate in his blog at Forbes. His blog addresses innovation projects at large companies, but I think his points can also be applied to early stage companies. The whole article is worth a read, but the principle can be summarized as follows:

“An effective devil’s advocate frames the most important questions that need to be answered before a disruptive innovation is attempted at scale. The advocate also guides the process, making sure that the right amount of uncertainty is reduced at each step. It would obviously be unfair to demand great precision and certainty about an idea at the earliest stage. After all, if an innovation effort might yield a true killer app, it is necessarily moving into new territory—where certainty doesn’t yet exist. But, at each new step, greater precision should be demanded, and, by launch stage, you want confidence before you commit a bunch of money and put your reputation on the line.”

Steve Blank and Eric Ries express similar ideas in their writing about startups – specifically the need to get out of the building and talk to customers. A company that engages wholeheartedly in “getting out of the building” will avoid many of the pitfalls pointed out by Chunka Mui because the customer is asked to fill the role of Devil’s Advocate.

In the end, it is critical to frame the role of devil’s advocacy correctly. It can’t just be about killing projects or even identifying flaws. Otherwise, the process becomes a game of gotcha. Instead, it needs to be about reducing uncertainty, about learning — even if information that is unearthed discredits the idea. It has to be about building the best team, project, and company possible.

For more on Chunka Mui, you can see his bio at The Devil’s Advocate Group or read his blog at Forbes.