Did you ever notice how decisions seem to gain a momentum of their own?  A managing partner becomes enamored of an idea, and no one else spends time thinking about it.  Or, as is more frequently the case, a tough question, such as "Are we at the top of our game, or are we in decline?" never gets asked because the answer is assumed. 

This is not an academic exercise.  Jim Collins reveals in his book How The Mighty Fall that the inspiration for the book came from a question he was asked about a question he posed to a group of generals, CEOs and social sector leaders.  Here’s the story:

I pondered and puzzled, and finally settled upon, Is America renewing its greatness, or is America dangerously on the cusp of falling from great to good?

                                             ************

At the break, the chief executive of one of American’s most successful companies pulled me aside.  "I find our discussion fascinating, but I’ve been thinking about your question in the context of my company all morning," he mused.  "We’ve had tremendous success in recent years, and I worry about that.  And so, what I want to know is, How would you know?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"When you are at the top of the world, the most powerful nation on earth, the most successful company in your industry, the best player in your game, your very power and success might cover up the fact that you’re already on the path to decline.  So, how would you know?"

Collins wrote a book to respond to that question.  My question is this: who in your organization is asking that question?  And since most law firms have highly skilled paid professional advocates, if I were running a firm, I would give my best professional advocate the task of making the case that our firm was in decline.  Why?  Because if I couldn’t win that argument against a good advocate, why should I believe he or she isn’t right?  Then I need to ask what I can do about it.

Good questions.  Hard answers.  But as important, getting somebody to make the debate robust is worth its weight in gold.

  • This, of course, was the motivation behind the creation of the “Advocatus Diaboli,” the Devil’s Advocate.
    When the Catholic Church decides whether or not someone should be canonized as a saint, one of the steps in the long, complicated process is a formal trial. Canon lawyers are appointed to argue for and against, and the “anti-” lawyer is called the Advocatus Diaboli.
    Good idea.