Innovation in action: Go on, be a contrarian

Following the crowd is not a particularly creative activity. And the more we get in the habit of following the crowd, the harder it is to take the risk of being innovative, according to Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Humans have a tendency to follow the crowds. And that makes sense. Following the crowd is usually a safe option. If there is no time to analyze a situation ­ following the crowd is a safe bet. If you do not want to stand out as someone who is disagreeable or uncooperative, following the crowd should prevent such consequences.

But, following the crowd is not a particularly creative activity. And the more we get in the habit of following the crowd, the harder it is to take the risk of going in different direction.

However, if you want to be a creative thinker, you need to be contrary sometimes. You need to be a contrarian.

How to be a creative contrarian

The term “contrarian” is usually used with respect to investors who make decisions that contradict the prevailing wisdom of the market. But a contrarian can also be described as anyone who takes a contrary position in a situation. I like contrarians.

A good contrarian does not disagree with the prevailing view simply to be disagreeable, although she often starts out that way. She usually has her own path of logic behind her disagreement. For example, when Galileo Galilee announced that the Earth ­ together with the other planets – orbited the sun, his contrary opinion was based on substantial research and logical calculations. Indeed, being a contrarian got Galileo into all kinds of trouble with the church.

Likewise, Google became what is probably the world’s biggest advertising business by taking a contrary view to advertising on the web. Rather than offer loud, flashing animated banner advertisements similar to those that adorn every commercial web site, Google took a contrary stance. They offered advertisers only simple, short text ads. Of course there was a logic behind their contrariness. Google reasoned that people browsing text based links to find information would be more impressed by text based advertisements related to their information search than they would be by flashing banners. Google was clearly right about that. Although most of us see Google as a search engine, they are in fact a highly successful advertising business.

Avoid groupthink

Being a contrarian is not really difficult. Whenever you are in a situation where a group of people immediately want to follow a particular course of action, consider the alternatives ­ or contrary courses of action. If there is a good argument for the contrary action, promote it to the group. Even if the group follows their own original course of action, your contrary suggestion will have made them rethink ­ and possibly modify ­ their course of action.

For example, imagine you work in a company that produces plastic garden furniture. The company is considering its product line for the spring and summer of 2005. Everyone agrees that the furniture should be green, brown and white because these are natural colours and after all, most garden furniture is in green, brown and white.

As a contrarian, you suggest that people might like bright colors that stand out in their gardens. So, why not produce a line of stylish garden furniture in bright red, pink and yellow? You could argue that these colors would stand out from green lawns in much the same way as flowers stand out from their green stems and leaves.

Even if the company decides to stick to their usual colors, you will have ensured that they think more about colors in the future.

So go on, don’t be shy. Be a contrarian.

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of Bwiti bvba, a Belgian-based company that helps organizations to become more innovative and more creative. He writes and edits Report103, a weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention in business, and operates the JPB.com website. 

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