Good CX Programmes become better by being opposed. Being challenged on assumed truths, deliverables and solutions. Good. However, superb programmes manage to change the opposers themselves. Let’s explore and get some learnings from Popes, Presidents and seagulls.

Organising opposition in your company is a long held challenge. Especially within typical business environments. Ideally you have creative, brave people that inspire you to new insights. That bring in novel viewpoints and never thought of solutions. However, the creativity and audacity to stand up against assumed (political) truths is in short supply when you have to find them within organisations. We all know that. So it’s no surprise that Programme Boards and Steering Committees can often be a tough place. One where you find yourself measured to the rules of the company when it comes to reporting, resources, delivery and so on.

If only such a board could not size you up, but instead help you tackle business rules…

Without a doubt the most famous role of an opposer is a role that is now some 500 years old: the role of the Devil’s Advocate. It was Pope Leo X (1513-1521) that gave us this means to systematically evoke disruptive thinking. Why did he come up with this? Let’s pause a bit and take a look at the man himself. A man, by all means, quite interesting. Leo X is said to have had a pleasant voice and cheerful temper. He was accomplished in humanist studies and enjoyed music, literature and poetry. He also excelled in what we would now call ‘stand-up comedy’: improvising and creating verses on the spot. And here’s the thing. He didn’t just happen to be good at it, he loved it so much he indulged in it. A bit too much.

His love of masquerades, buffoonery and irresponsible frivolous pursuits led Leo X to be ridiculed by his contemporaries. And to make things worse, his lavish expenses and immoderate personal luxury quickly forced him to borrow large sums from bankers and princes. Even to pawning palace furniture and statues of the apostles. Just to pay the bills. Of course not everyone was too pleased, so consequently he escaped a plot to be poisoned. And the overall lavish lifestyle sparked the Reformation. Talk about a legacy.

But Leo recognized the importance of contrasting views and novel or extraordinary opinions. Even if it was sometimes only for amusement and ridicule,

he very well knew bringing in other voices brought the room alive and made people step up their game.

Under Leo X this concept saw its way in the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church for the first time. An individual was appointed to be sceptical. To withstand being carried away. To look for flaws in argumentation or evidence and generally to argue against a candidate listed for sainthood. In this very first case it was the canonisation of St. Lawrence Justinian. That ‘opposite promoter’ was the promotor fidei (Promoter of the Faith) and is better known today as the advocatus diabolic: The Devil’s advocate. The idea is that the Devil would do anything to obstruct another saint to be canonized. And as a side-kick to the almighty Devil himself, the one taking up this role is someone to be taken very, very seriously. It’s a good name. Definitely. Later, in 1587, Pope Sixtus V established it as an official office of the Vatican.

The concept proved to be a popular approach. And over the years, decades and centuries the concept evolved. Even to the point that just one Devil’s advocate wasn’t good enough anymore. O no, it even became a whole Devil’s bar of advocates. Setting yourself up against more and more people whose single task it is to oppose you. Looking for flaws. Looking for things wrong with it. Looking to bring you off balance and get your emotions get the better of you (as a side note, the word ‘emotion’ dates back to 1579 when it got adapted from the French word émouvoir which already means “to stir up”).

Ok. So not just one, but a whole bar of opposers. As you might imagine, especially in risk-adverse organisations this became very popular. Environment where extreme efforts are taken to prevent mistakes. Like politics.

‘Moot Courts’ were used in the late 18th century by the third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson. These were such bars of Devil’s advocates. He used them to prepare for especially difficult debates with opponents. And although the word makes absolute sense – the word moot is actually an Old Norse word for both meeting and debate – it also lacks something…

The New Yorker published a very interesting article called ‘The Power Of Names’. It says that words like ‘“dawdle” and “meander” sound as unhurried as the walking speeds they describe”. Yes. Even more silly, let’s look at what a German poet called Christian Morgenstern wrote: “Seagulls all look like they are called Emma.” This is nonsense poetry. However, he does touch upon the connection between word and image.

Sometimes linguistic labels just perfectly match what they describe.

So does ‘Moot Court’ describe its intended role? No, not really. It invokes at best a scenery of mooing cows, slowly grazing and not in a particular hurry. That’s not a name that really has a sparkle. It does not tell you to be careful, prepare for it and even be afraid of it. The term ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is far better in that respect. But… it can be even better.

Enter the ‘Murder Board’. This is the name the U.S. military or NASA (they contest who coined the term) came up with in the 1970s. Try to say that name without deepening your voice and sounding ominous. It was initiated to make the process of people arguing against you feeling even more hectic, disruptive and turbulent. For the ones presenting. But also for the people on the board. Just by the name immediately roles are clear. As it was described:

A group of subject matter experts “charged with the responsibility to slam a candidate or proposer of an idea up against the wall with tough questioning.”

To this day in U.S. politics these boards are used in preparing for tough debates and hearings.

So where does that leave us with our CX programmes? Sure, we can set up a Murder Board ourselves. That could be a good (and scary) incentive to raise the bar. My point however is about being very conscious of the effect a name can bring to the table. I mean, is it really such a surprise that if you initiate a Steering Committee, the people on it take up the behaviour that they associate with it? You told them to ‘steer’. So that’s what they’ll do.

Just imagine what interaction you would have with exactly the same set of people if you called them a Trustees Panel, a CX Guild, a Launching Platform (derived from ‘Shoot For The Moon’) or a G2G Council (‘Good To Great’). I’m making them up as I go along. But each and everyone has a positive, constructive vibe and inherent behaviour in them. Just for its title.

So yes, have people oppose you to challenge you to be better. But by using the right words, your fierce opponents become your allies. Not fighting against you because their role says so, but fighting with you.

Because you changed their title.

Note: This is an new version of a previous blog NPS and The Devil, splitting up and expanding on its original components .