You laugh because I'm different. I laugh because you're all the same. - Woody Page

Think of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma to some great Indians like Sh. Dhirubhai Ambani, Dr. Varaprasad Reddy of Shanta Biotech, Dadasaheb Phalke father of Indian Cinema, Dr Venkatswamy of ‘Arvind Netralaya’, Arunachalam Murugananthan ‘Sanitary Napkin Revolutionary’ (PADMAN), they have created new industries or have redefined the existing ones taking them to a newer different level. They all are contrarians and have made ding with their innovative thinking in the universe they created

Contrarians typically act, or think in a way contrary to popular or accepted opinion. If you have already started practicing, Habit 1,2 & 4, you are on your way to become a contrarian.

What it takes to be a Contrarian

All these contrarians were like you and me before they achieved their coveted status. Let’s take look at some of the attributes1 they demonstrated during their journey of creation.

  1. Focus: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” laser sharp focus help contrarians separate wheat from chaff. They put their focus on vital few leaving trivial many. This saves them lot of their energy being wasted in creating products & services that has no future. They identify this at very early stage on their journey. Steve Jobs has abandoned several products that didn’t make sense for Apple to pursue by creating a 2X2 matrix with consumer & pro in the column and desktop into portable in 2 rows. All future products Apple developed were in one of these four quadrants.
  2. Creating End to End Experience: We have seen in Habit 3 how VG Siddhartha of Café Coffee day has created an ecosystem around a commodity product ‘coffee beans’. Here end to end responsibility was to connect all consumers / corporates to a single product called ‘Coffee’ through several offerings that evolved along customer expectation trend. This way he extracted full value out of a commoditised product like Coffee.
  3. Leapfrogging: The mark of a contrarian is not only that he comes up with new ideas first. S/he also knows how to leapfrog when left behind by competitors. This happened when Jobs built the original iMac. He focused on making it useful for managing a user’s photos and videos, but it was left behind when dealing with music. People with PCs were downloading and swapping music and then ripping and burning their own CDs. The iMac’s slot drive couldn’t burn CDs. But instead of merely catching up by upgrading the iMac’s CD drive, he decided to create an integrated system that would transform the music industry. The result was the combination of iTunes.
  4. Refuse to be slave of focus groups: We must have heard the story of a deaf frog and how did he not listen to the other frogs who were claiming that they cannot clear the wall of a deep well. Finally, deaf frog cleared the wall. Contrarian don’t pay heed to the views of focus group which often has a very limited view of the world. Shri Dhirubhai Ambani rose from humble beginnings to create India's largest industrial empire, He was credited for starting the equity cult in India, Dhirubhai was praised for his key role in shaping India's stock market culture by attracting hordes of retail investors to a market monopolized by state-run financial institutions.
  5. Pushing for Perfection: It’s not only outside of the product that should look good but also the inside even if customer is not going to see it. Jobs made transparent covers for Mac so that customer can see the workmanship inside the Mac. His sole aim for doing this was that there will be perfection in engineering of products and so also in workmanship once they know that customer is going to look inside the machine. This has ensured perfection in every activity from design to delivery, making a very intriguing customer connect.
  6. Knowing BIG PICTURE and the DETAILS: When Dr Venkatswamy started Arvind Netralaya, he had a big picture in mind which was to ‘eliminate needless blindness’. He didn’t stop there but evolved & executed a detailed plan from patient identification to patient discharge which included all components of ecosystem around this start & end points e.g. Doctors who would perform the surgery, selection & training of paramedical staff, intraocular lenses at an affordable price needed post-surgery, number of patients to be handled with limited resource. He modelled his execution around McDonald model. Today it’s one of the self-sustaining eye care facility treating lakhs of needy patients for free. The lesson is its necessary to have big picture but also details of execution, else former will not be realised the way it has been envisioned.
  7. Staying Hungry, Staying Foolish: Its hunger for doing something and make a difference that drives contrarians. Deep Kalra of MakeMyTrip had passion for travel and with advent of internet wanted to float an online travel company. With dotcom bust his venture capitalist withdrew and he had to put his own savings into the venture. Having left GE, virtually no salary to take home and increased family responsibilities he could have gone back to corporate life once again, but ‘abhi nahi karenge to kab karenge’ thought made him look foolish in the eyes of the world, but hunger for making a difference made him continue with his venture and rest is history.

What Can Make You a CONTRARIAN

All the above attributes are a result of conscious and/or unconscious practice of some skills. Some of you might think ‘Contrarians have to be born’ well, that may sound like a truth if we ignore to look at the way these contrarians were shaped throughout their life. The other Point of View (POV) is can we sculpt, as an organisation, such contrarians in our system?’  and answer is definitely ‘yes’ if we encourage & percolate some skills that shape behaviours of our employees to be able to graduate to that state. Let’s see what are they and how you might build them.

There are 5 skills2 that you can help employees develop

  • Associating: ‘Create dots first and you will surprise yourself how they got connected later”. Associating happens when brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs. It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas. Late Sh. Dhirubhai Ambani derived his vision by comparing pricing of mobile communication to that of a post card.

    You can once in a while have a breakout and practice association of things either by words or objects. This activity is fun as well as a great capability builder. People can amaze themselves with new associations which they never thought before.
  • Questioning: He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains fool for ever. Innovators are greatest un-learners. They fuel unlearning by asking questions that challenge the status quo, just as Jobs did when asked ‘Why does a computer need a fan?’ Innovators like Jobs, ask questions to understand how things really are today, why are they that way, and how might they be challenged? Their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities and directions. What leadership need to encourage and value is higher Question/Answer ratios.

    How do we help employees develop an ability to question? Just like we have brainstorming to create ideas, we need to allow people to ‘questions storm’ questions on a given topic in 5-10 mins without thinking much about the rationale of questions being asked. This approached is called ‘Question Storming’. Questions are then prioritised and answers are sought. This way people develop skills to question. These sessions need to be conducted at regular intervals about pressing business problems that teams have on their hand.
  • Observing: You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. Innovators are intense observers. They carefully watch the world around them-including customers, products, services, technologies, companies and the observation help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things.
  • One of the ways to improve observational skills of people, is to send them to market place or anywhere to observe where business activities are happening. Then they can be asked to present it and what they can make out of it without any inhibitions. It may not be related to the current business but can be related to anything. It’s just their version that’s what is needed, no need to be judgemental about their observations. Skill of ‘observations’ is infectious and suddenly people realise to have found a new eye and mind to observe.
  • Networking: Network is your net worth. The quote is a reflection of reality. Due to advent of internet and overall advancement of communication and physical infrastructure, people can easily network. They actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things. Networking also helps us break the silos. Organisations can enable networking by more & more cross business interactions taking a specific issue, run its own TED shows either by inviting people from inside as well as from outside. It can encourage people to participate in outside events and also bring in their acquaintances who have ideas to solve their current problems or fuel future ventures.
  • Experimenting: Observation is a passive science, experimentation is an active science. Things get created twice; first in the mind and then in the practice, so unless & until we encourage experiments ideas won’t see the light of the day. One of the impediments to experimentation is budget, but if that’s the universal thing we need to think about using free resources to experiment if we truly believe in our idea. A smallest experimentation sometimes attracts the attention of others around us and that may be a start to building a confidence in our idea and eventually in the solution. So, experimentation is a must without it idea remains an idea only.

What’s Next: Call for Action

How you build contrarians in your system??

  1. Prioritise: Review your and your team’s priorities to realise whether you are allocating good amount of time on ‘discovering’ new things or are merely focussed on delivery & development. Innovative companies allow their leaders to spend 30% or more time on discovery
  2. Assess: your and your team’s innovation skills and decide where each member stands, accordingly he can be encouraged to practice skills that he lacks and can be a coach to others where he is strong
  3. Identify Innovation Challenges: Practice makes us perfect, so it’s very essential to identify current innovation challenges or discovering future opportunities and start practicing these skills
  4. Get a Coach: Outside help helps. These discovery skills can be perfected with certain innovation tools & techniques. These tools and techniques help people systematically challenge current paradigms, formulate contradictions & generate ideas they never thought they could generate before.
  5. Practice, Practice, Practice: Innovation challenges identified above can be run as a project by various teams, so that organisation realise the proof of pudding.
  6. Reward Behaviours & Approaches: People will develop renewed confidence & will be more than encouraged to take ‘bull by the horn’ (challenges) and taming it (solutions).

Grow contrarians slowly but surely, you will suddenly realise that along with products & services, you create & grow innovators & knowledge.

All progress in the world depends on the unreasonable men – George Bernard Shaw

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  1. The Real Lessons of Steve Jobs; WALTER Issacson, Harvard Business Review, April 2012
  2. The Innovator’s DNA; JEFF Dyer, HAL Gregersen, CLAYTON Christensen; Harvard Business Review Press