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The Tenth Man

In the wake of the Yom Kippur War (known as the Ramadan War in the Arab world), Israel realised it needed a strategy to combat what it saw as a tendency to buy into a single way of thinking, and in so doing, to underestimate its enemy and dismiss presumed small or insignificant threats. To address this weakness, it developed the Tenth Man Strategy.

The premise of the Tenth Man Strategy is simple: when people in any group come to a consensus on the best way forward, one person or group is tasked with pointing out the flaws in their thinking and making a compelling case for an alternative approach. That person’s job is to challenge received wisdom and conventional thinking. It’s the classic Devil’s Advocate role, institutionalised.

I learned all of this relatively recently – but reading about it, I realise it’s a role I’ve played with clients for years. Perhaps it’s what some have described as my naturally contrarian thinking, but I’m a strong advocate of the adage, “when all the experts agree, you can guarantee they’re all wrong.” We only know what’s right when we’ve taken a good look at what’s wrong.

I’m quite delighted to realise this is actually a thing, and not just me being difficult! Or perhaps I am difficult, but surely that’s the point. If no-one in your organisation is disagreeing with you, passionately arguing a different point of view, or breaking rank to encourage a radical new approach, you’re probably talking to yourself – and you don’t need convincing.

Not sure if this is a thing where you work? Ask yourself a few basic questions:

  1. Are ordinary employees encouraged to speak out when they disagree with the organisation’s leadership?

  2. Is consensus, or respect for hierarchy, discouraged in decision-making?

  3. Has your CEO ever changed his or her mind when confronted by a different viewpoint?

  4. Do people who regularly voice objections find themselves closer to the centre of power?

  5. Do people say things like “our culture welcomes disagreement and confrontation?”

If you’ve answered “no” to any these questions (be honest), you probably have a groupthink problem. And if you do, your organisation is probably not very effective in advocating for itself or communicating with its stakeholders.

From The New Coke to the Bay of Pigs, organisations that make decisions through a self-reinforcing internal dialogue have made bad decisions. Sometimes they have been embarassing (like the Kendall Jenner ad for Pepsi) and other times they have led to catastrophe (like Pearl Harbour). Encouraging healthy debate and a diversity of perspective, by contrast, brings strength.

So get yourself a tenth man (or woman). Get me if you want. But however you do it, make sure you deliberately and actively encourage a challenging voice. It won't always be comfortable, but it will make your organisation stronger.


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