How to be a smart contrarian in IT

A contrary approach to conventional wisdom can open new opportunities for creative problem-solving. Consider these expert tips
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Some people enjoy being contrary to get attention or resist authority – and every once in a while, they’re right. Being a smart contrarian, however, requires effort and thought. And for IT leaders, thinking like a contrarian can lead to greater innovation.

4 smart contrarian approaches to conventional wisdoms

Here are four ways to take a contrarian approach in a smart, thoughtful way.

1. Conventional wisdom: To innovate, you must come up with something new.

Smart contrarian: You can innovate on the process of well-understood technology stacks.

There are plenty of companies chasing the next big thing – be it quantum computing, blockchain, or the metaverse. And while innovation can lead to huge gains, you can still innovate in established technology areas.

For example, cloud computing, high-performance computing, and machine learning (including applied narrow and wide artificial intelligence) are well-understood stacks, yet there is still room to innovate. The development and deployment pipelines and improving processes can be unexpected game-changers in that they can allow professionals in different areas to solve problems without having to learn the full technology stack.

[ Also read IT leadership: 4 tips on achieving your goals in 2022. ]

If an expert in manufacturing or finance can use a cloud-enabled supercomputer to solve machine-learning problems in a way that they understand, for example, the world can move forward faster as experts in other fields innovate similarly.

2. Conventional wisdom: To keep up, you must be busy all the time.

Smart contrarian: You can be productive and deliver results without being constantly busy.

We all know someone whose calendar is often double- or triple-booked, who’s in constant demand for meetings and consults, and is always busy delivering for clients, collaborating with hot business units, and innovating on the cutting edge of their specific field. Maybe that even describes you.

All these efforts aren’t truly productive, however, if you don’t have time to think clearly and consider where you can make the greatest impact. Quality suffers and you can’t bring your best self to solve the most important problems.

How can you overcome this challenge? When you ask the right questions, you can figure out what drives the most value, what is most needed and will drive the most impact – and perhaps more importantly, what is not needed at the moment.

Schedule time for reflection. Have conversations with colleagues and friends who know you best. What motivates you? What comes easier to you than to your colleagues? Maybe your unique value is at the intersection of several unrelated (or unexpectedly related) disciplines. You won’t discover these insights if you don’t take the time to explore, reflect, and talk to others.

3. Conventional wisdom: Project management is mostly overhead.

Smart contrarian: You can leverage project management so that it’s not overhead.

You’ve probably felt the pain of working on a project that is slowed by either too much or too little project management. Despite the many development methods, best practices, and tools available in software development, for example, too often we find ourselves stuck in endless meetings, struggling with constantly shifting scopes and timelines, and appeasing increasingly impatient clients – with no end in sight.

Don't over-engineer a solution to a problem that nobody cares about. Let your customers lead you to what matters and do just enough engineering from there.

How can you improve the experience and its outcomes? By asking the right questions to the right people at the right time. Instead of getting caught up in pet projects and initiatives, step back and consider whether you are doing things in the most efficient way. When you frame things correctly, you can save time and avoid over-engineering by clarifying what is most useful.

The key is to make sure you are solving problems that your stakeholders care about. As technologists, we can see the beauty in technical solutions for their own sake, but do these technical solutions provide the right value?

Start with the end user or the most important stakeholders: Do they find the end results intriguing? Have you built a proof-of-concept solution that tests your hypotheses? Can they get some value and provide you with quality feedback from a minimal viable product (MVP)?

Don’t over-engineer a solution to a problem that nobody cares about. Let your customers lead you to what matters and do just enough engineering from there. You’ll still need to add standard enterprise features such as security, user experience, and scale, but the goal is to add them to a product your client wants and values.

4. Conventional wisdom: Much communication is just overhead.

Smart contrarian: You can get great value from communication.

Have you ever spent hours or days solving a problem, only to have a colleague show you a much quicker, easier approach?

Asking the right questions can be just as important as having the right skills. Engaging the right people at the right time will give you a better picture of what people really want, saving you time in design and development. Start with the customer or the most important stakeholders: Can you talk directly to them to understand their needs? Can you talk to someone who already knows what they want?

Before you try to solve a problem, find out if anyone on your team or at your company has already solved that problem or has experience with it. Explore wikis and forums to see if solutions have been documented privately or publicly.

Too often, we fail to ask questions because we don’t want to appear uninformed or unintelligent. Keep in mind that most people enjoy being asked for advice and would welcome the opportunity to answer a question, especially early in the process when they can help you save time and effort. Also, asking the right questions shows your colleagues that you can think through problems and may be able to solve them more creatively.

Have the confidence to go against conventional wisdom in the right ways. You will become a more creative problem solver and a smarter, more thoughtful contrarian.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Todd Deshane is chief automation and proof of concept specialist at Computer Task Group. He is a generalist with cloud-native skills working on some of the most exciting problems in the world across software, hardware, and scientific boundaries.