Advocatus diaboli: diversification helps.

Post title - LIONblog

I am intrigued by abundant resonances between optimization schemes, in particular what we call LION schemes (learning from data plus optimization), and real-world issues related to management , decision making, startups, etc. So much that I am almost getting bored while reading some recent management books because they look like déjà vu “applied stochastic local search” to me. I will therefore focus my next blogs on these issues.

Let’s start from tradition. Experts in heuristics for optimization are familiar with diversification, as opposed to intensification. Diversification implies looking at many diverse solutions, exploring uncharted territories, avoiding being trapped in locally optimal solutions and decisions.

During the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church, the Devil's advocate (Latin: advocatus diaboli), established in 1587 during the reign of Pope Sixtus V, was a lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate. It was this person’s job to take a skeptical view, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on. The Devil's advocate opposed God's advocate (Latin: advocatus Dei), whose task was to make the argument in favor of canonization.

God’s advocate is intensifying, searching for evidence in agreement with the current “locally-optimal” solution of making somebody a saint. Devil's advocate is trying to change that decision by actively searching for information leading to a very different – in fact contrary - decision.

A Devil’s advocate is the best insurance against groupthink, a phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

In your business, you should probably hire a devil’s advocate if you do not have one already. And you should always value collaborators providing sound critical feedback as opposed to "yes men".

BTW: the Devil’s advocate was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983: If I may argue with a Pope’s decision in spite of my being Italian, I am not sure it was a wise decision about making future decisions.

Info from wikipedia, image from DUMC