Today’s post is from our SafeSourcing Archives
It’s popular these days to be contrarian, thanks largely in part to the disruptive entrepreneurs of silicon valley that have become just as well known for the products they create as any A-list celebrity. Reading business articles on the topic makes it sound like being contrarian is never a bad thing. However, while “contrarian” can mean just someone who goes against popular opinion, doing so just for the sake of being contrarian can be very dangerous. While there is some merit to the notion that doing something which everyone else thinks is crazy might just seem that way because it’s a hugely innovative idea, there are far more people who do crazy things that simply are monumentally bad ideas. The way tech and investment entrepreneur Peter Thiel puts it, what matters is being “contrarian and right”. Being contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian makes you a hipster, being contrarian and right makes you innovative.
The common thread that runs through these instances of unpopular opinion is the need to have the skills to identify a good idea. For some reason, business journalists repeatedly fail to see the obvious when they praise a business leader’s being different as the means to the success, without realizing that it was the business leader’s ability to find truths that lead them in a non-conventional direction that led to their success. The obvious danger here is that you can just as easily think differently from popular thinking, and be wrong. So how do we avoid falling into the trap of believing that thinking different is always a good thing, without missing the possible opportunities of truly innovative thinking?
- Slow the conversation: Contrarians thrive on rapid fire dialog, with the intention of getting your buy-in of their first point, by moving on to several other points before you’ve had a chance to think of reasons why their first idea might be a bad idea. Don’t allow anyone to gain your tacit approval by not giving you time to object.
- Don’t fall for “mood bullying”: At times, a contrarian thinker will push to get their idea accepted not based on its merit, but by making it uncomfortable for anyone else to reject it. Don’t fall for bad ideas just because you don’t want to deal with the drama that will ensue for questioning someone’s ideas.
- Contrarian and argumentative: A telltale sign that someone is being contrarian just to be hip rather than for the merit of an idea, is to observe how argumentative they are. If someone will argue against every idea that isn’t theirs, and perhaps even argue against their own previously mentioned ideas, there’s a good chance they aren’t trying to bring value to your organization, but to their own ego.
- Fail quickly: If you come across an idea that goes against conventional wisdom, but the reasoning behind it is solid, iterate its implementation. Today it’s easier than ever to create prototypes quickly. Commit a small project to an innovative idea, and let it prove itself by succeeding or failing quickly and in a low risk environment.
- Evaluate the foundation/first principles: When Pokemon Go™ exploded onto the scene; investors saw the trend and invested heavily into Nintendo™. However, in this case the contrarians were right to go against the flow: Nintendo™ didn’t actually create the Pokemon Go™ game, and once it became obvious, Nintendo™ stocks plummeted. However, having the skill to identify underlying principles that lead to a market bubble for instance is a contrarian skill based on an understanding of economics that can be objectively evaluated.
Contrarianism should be a byproduct, not a goal. Innovation entails thinking differently about something because there is an assumed truth being bought into that is wrong, or an underlying truth that by and large everyone else has missed. There were contrarians in the 90’s after all, who thought the internet was a fad, and whose businesses were destroyed by other contrarians that understood the fundamentally exponential potential of network externalities and brought us internet connected devices of every shape and size. The act of understanding more deeply, having a wider breadth of knowledge, and learning a wider toolset of logical and critical thinking skills will result in having views that differ from others in ways that add value without even trying.
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 “A Painful Year for Contrarian Trades – A Wealth of Common Sense.” 2016. 15 Aug. 2016 <http://awealthofcommonsense.com/2015/12/contrarian/>
 “E525: Peter Thiel (Founders Fund, PayPal, Palantir, Facebook) on …” 2015. 14 Aug. 2016 <http://thisweekinstartups.com/peter-thiel-launch-festival/>
 “Nintendo shares plummet after investors realize it doesn’t … – The Verge.” 2016. 15 Aug. 2016 <http://www.theverge.com/2016/7/25/12269466/nintendo-stock-plunge-pokemon-go>