Friday, April 02, 2010

Think Contrarian

It is easy to describe what happens in a corporate meeting. A proposal is presented and everyone looks at the top boss in the room for his reactions. If the boss says yes, you can be sure that the entire room will be filled with a cacophony of yeses and if the boss says no, you can be sure that the proposal will not get anywhere. Of course, I am simplifying things here, but the picture I have painted is not too far from the truth.

So, coming to the topic of this column, in a firm hiring happens according to a set of criteria. Either qualification, industry experience or a mix of both. The emphasis is always on PLU -people like us. And with PLU, very often, you get TLU - thinking like us. TLU makes life easy - but do remember that it is boring and it makes it difficult to think out of the box when all the frogs are from the same well. As someone said, if two people agree all the time, you need only one of them. It does not imply dissenting for the sake of dissenting, it means, presenting an alternative possibility and keeping an open mind.

Which is where you, as the freshly minted MBA, can add value. Thinking contrarian is a difficult thing to do. It is sometimes trashing something that is deemed to be the best. It sometimes means standing beside something everyone has given up on. It sometimes means trying something so different that it sounds obviously against the grain and almost stupid. It also means putting your heart and soul and even your credibility risking something that nobody else would. But all of this is the big stuff. Speaking out while thinking contrarian is even more difficult.

At a very basic level, your ability to think contrarian lies in your ability to distinguish the message from the messenger. It applies not only to a good suggestion coming from someone hitherto labeled otherwise, it also applies to recognize a bad suggestion coming from an outperformer. It means, regardless of hierarchy, you see merit in whatis being put across.

Now don't confuse Thinking Contrarian with playing the Devils Advocate. Devils Advocates are those who needlessly bring down people and projects and morale. As Seth Godin says in one of his books, "The Devil does not need an advocate". So if you are playing Devils Advocate and think you are adding great value to anything, quit. When you are faced with a Devils Advocate, ask them to come up with a solution, not add to your problems. While a devils advocate needlessly harangues, the contrarian thinker has a thought process behind it.

The contrarian thinker is able to persuade people away from common logic and try out a different approach. To give you an oft quoted example - Reducing cellphone tariffs would get your more revenue as more people would use it is a contrarian thought. Till operators in India did it and people were able to see ARPU go up. Or, using roll on roll off services for trucks on the Konkan railway. Why would anyone want to load up their trucks on railway wagons? Well, there was a reason and there was a good reason to do so.

Both of these are common simple examples, but they are examples of contrarian thinking at work. For telecom networks who believed that the meat of the market was in the high paying customers, it would have taken much convincing to reduce the rates so that affordability increases without making it so cheap that cellphones itself go out of fashion or companies go out of business. For truck companies who pay drivers by the kilometer, what sense did it make to load their trucks onto railway wagons with the drivers and get them to the destination?

In both these cases, as in most cases related to contrarian thinking, there are hidden benefits that you can realize. The lower rate for example made cellphones affordable to, say, a vegetable vendor. Those who can pay for the cellphone, now call the vendor on the cellphone (for whom incoming is free for life, say) creating a market where it hitherto did not exist. Thus the market is widened. And this is just one example.

For the trucks on the Konkan railway, the obvious benefit was reducing wear and tear on the trucks and tyres itself given the ghat roads. A less obvious benefit was reducing time taken and creating a more predictable time for goods being transported and having drivers who are fresh for handling, thereby improving safety and delivery times. All of this actually helped reduce both cost and time on these routes which is
exactly what the operators and the customers wanted.

The entire philosophy of JIT (Just in time) in manufacturing is about a contrarian approach than what is accepted as common practice. It believes in zero stock at workstations, pull rather than push and giving responsibility to the workers who run the workstations.

Thinking contrarian is not easy. Often it comes from intuition, but very often it comes from questioning existing practices that are engraved in stone as "standard accepted practices" that cannot be questioned. It comes from experimenting on a small scale (usually happens with small teams) or from having an open mind about a new process. It often comes from learning from a different industry.

More than that, it is about asking questions when everybody in a room has nodded their heads and provided their assent to something. When everybody in the room, hired and promoted for their intelligence and performance, have passed their judgement and blessed something, who dares ask a question? That first question is often the birth of a contrarian approach and often the most difficult....

It is not everyones cup of tea to think contrarian or out of the box. But it is a trait that can be cultivated. The first place to try it? Your MBA and your case studies while you are in the course.

(An edited version of this appeared in Advancedge April 10)

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