The Tenth Men Rule: Playing Devil's Advocate to accelerate organisation growth

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The Tenth Men Rule: Playing Devil's Advocate to accelerate organisation growth

The Tenth Men Rule: Playing Devil's Advocate to accelerate organisation growth
Ong Zhe Ming
8 min
29 Nov. 2022

An organisation is often considered harmonious when its employees present themselves as a cohesive and cooperative unit. While harmony is an important component to organisational growth, unfortunately, it doesn’t always translate to organisational growth.

Sometimes organisational biases and groupthink prevail, creating silos and misaligned personal agendas. These attributes and characteristics are persistent in many organisations and rooting them out has proven difficult. But for an organisation to grow and adapt to change, removing these impediments is critical.

This is where the Tenth Man Rule comes in.

First developed and applied by the Israeli intelligence during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, today due to its applicability in a variety of situations, businesses have applied it to accelerate growth.

However, to advance the effectiveness of the Tenth Man Rule, this article asserts that it should be used alongside former US Colonel John Boyd’s idea of the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop.

The Devil and the Details

Before diving into its application in business, lets define both terms first:

The Tenth Man Rule

This idea postulates that in a group of ten people, when nine members arrive at the same conclusion, the tenth person should always disagree and point out the flaws of the group’s conclusion, even if they agree.

In essence, the tenth man plays the role of devil’s advocate to serve as the organisation’s ‘devil’ in a manner of speaking. Essentially, the adversary in all situations but one weaponised toward helping the organisation emerge with a stronger, clearer, and airtight solution.

The point of this is to establish and steelman an idea by exposing its weaknesses. By constantly attacking and unpacking an ideas’ flaws, the organisation can refine its conclusions to get the best possible outcome.

The Steelmanning Challenge

  1. Create the best version of your counterpart’s argument
  2. Help your counterpart steelman their argument
  3. Argue on your counterpart’s behalf

The OODA Loop

This loop is a four-stage cycle of:

Basically, a person would first observe and take stock of their situation. Then, they orient themselves with possible options and scenarios. After, they decide which option to use. Lastly, they act on that decision.

The results will be observed, and the cycle begins again.

Essentially, the OODA loop is a quick, effective, and proactive decision-making process that businesses can utilise to remain competitive. By constantly cycling through the stages, decision makers are able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their decisions while also preparing for the unpredictable.





Right now, it would seem these ideas are too distinct to compliment one another. But here is how you do it.

The Devil in Action: Red Team vs Blue Team

When faced with a dilemma, a CEO can assign two independent groups (let’s call them the red & blue teams).

Each team will represent an opposing view of the decision. One defends the initial stance of the CEO while the other refutes it. In this situation, the teams (rather than an actual tenth individual) will represent the Tenth Man Rule.

As the presentations go, both teams and the CEO cycle through the OODA loop. They will observe their situation together, orient possible opportunities, decide which ones to move towards, and they act based on that decision.

In the process, they not only shift the nature of the debate but also improve the quality of the decision-making process.

Interestingly, there can be multiple iterations of this process.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act loop - Ong Zhe Ming

For example, Warren Buffet uses the classic case mentioned above by hiring two investment advisers to make opposing cases. In a Harvard Business Review article, Bill Gates shares that Buffet utilised this process in the acquisition of various investment such as the Berkshire Hathaway to make sure it is a profitable venture.

From a dying textile company, Berkshire Hathaway now owns multiple companies including GEICO and Dairy Queen. It also owns significant holdings in public companies like Apple, Coca-Cola, and the Bank of America.

On the other hand, Steve Jobs uses a variation of this process in which his employees would make a case about a developing a possible Apple product while he would play the devil’s advocate.

This method enabled him to lead Apple in transforming technology and communication with the development and release of seminal consumer products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

Effectiveness of summoning the 'Devil'

“Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing” -Warren Buffet

These words suggest that for a venture to succeed or for an organisation to grow, decision makers should be willing to learn as much as they can about a certain decision. Organisational bias and groupthink can hold the company back.

To overcome this, utilise the Tenth Man Rule with the OODA loop.

If you’re still unconvinced or struggling to visualise the actual impact from using this strategy, here are just five of the best benefits you stand to gain:

  1. Risks and uncertainties are minimised
  2. The company is prepared to face any changes
  3. Groupthink and organisational bias are mitigated
  4. Most, if not all, possible solutions to a problem are considered. Thus, helping decision makers take the best course of action
  5. The company maintains a competitive edge as decisions made are effective and proactive

If you don’t know what the risk is, you’ll plan for every outcome. The OODA Loop in conjunction with the Tenth Man Rule creates an environment where decision makers are taught to think in this manner, all the time.

Consultants as Organisational Devils 

Given a consultant’s role in providing insights, advice, recommendations, and information, they can serve as the organisation’s devils or adversary.

This might sound contradictory to what you would expect when hiring a consultant but it is money well spent when an expert consultant is able to counter thoughtful decisions with an informed approach.

Consultants incite discourse, mitigate impasses in decisions, and balance the group’s cohesion with dissent. In addition, they can spur the growth of the organisation as they drive the company’s decision makers to think critically and creatively by forcing them out of their comfort zone.

Unfortunately, some may argue that having an organisational devil can delay decision making or paralyse the organisation in perpetual disagreement.

While this can certainly be true and is a risk, effective contrarians know when enough is enough. They provide solid logic and rationale and offer new perspectives as they are not impeded down by the organisational culture and bias. In fact, this is why consultants can be good devil’s advocates.

They know to attack the idea, not the people. 

Especially in our business of enabling Agile/Digital Transformation, it is prudent that the transformation occurs with the team being on board and are willing to identify and accept certain missteps or failures.

The best way to ensure that is to create a situation where the people know they are not being attacked and that the objective is to identify flaws to correct, rather than pointing blame.

In traditional methodologies, and even in the Asian context, blame pointing can be quite pervasive. Inevitably, this results in individuals withdrawing or worse, padding explanations with unnecessary information to cushion the blame they fear they're about to receive.

A consultant or coach is experienced in managing this and installing guidelines to help with the changing of mindset and culture while the teams are brought into alignment to fulfil business objectives. 

Final Thoughts & Conclusion

The Tenth Man Rule coupled with the OODA loop can further the growth of organisations.

For a decision to provide the best possible outcome, it should be decisive and informed. Through the Tenth Man Rule and the OODA Loop, decision makers get to know every aspect of the situation/decision.

Likewise, risks and uncertainties are mitigated while possible gains are maximised.

Much like any strategy, it has its own limitations. It is not a silver bullet to success. However, as attested by the success of business moguls like Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs, following the Tenth Man Rule with the OODA loop has proven to be successful.

The only question is, when will you start to implement it?

Written by Agile Consultant, Ong Zhe Ming

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