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Is your career in a groove or a rut? Smart risks for tech careers

Those who think logically and rationally often thrive in the technology arena, but analytical thinking can also hold us back. Here's how to develop more innovative thoughts and think more "irrationally" to find new ideas and solutions.

Techies may believe they have nothing of value to learn from Lady Gaga when it comes to their careers, but they would be wrong.

Gaga is adept at taking smart risks, says Whitney Johnson, an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. That is exactly what more tech workers need to do if they want to have successful careers.

Technology pros often are prized for their self-discipline and ability to think logically. But, says Johnson, author of "Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work," they may become so accustomed to following rules that they don’t push themselves to take more risks. “Their logical mind may look at something and say, ‘Are you out of your mind? This doesn’t make sense.'"

But at a time when more employers are urging employees to come up with innovative ideas and solutions, this lack of creativity—even in technology—can cause a career to stagnate, Johnson says.

People in IT and related industries should use their knowledge and experience to make smart decisions but also be willing to take a step back from a “stupid idea,” instead of walking away from it. By using their analytical thinking skills to take a second look, they may just discover that a dumb idea isn’t so dumb after all, Johnson says. “Instead, you think, ‘You know, this may look stupid, but it is actually a calculated risk. I’m going to do it because it may look irrational, but it’s actually very rational.’”

Contract with your mentor to make you pissed off and frustrated... Because if you're comfortable, you aren't growing.

Bill JensenWorkplace futurist

Pamela Rice, a nonprofit board member and financial technology executive, sets aside two to three hours every day for several months to challenge herself with new ideas or skills—often on her own time. Recent knee surgery forced her to stay home for several weeks, which allowed her to take a “deep dive” into learning how to develop a new application. Rice started building out product ideas that could be explained to others in the company.

Still, Rice says, such efforts take planning and focus and may not happen without a real commitment to carving out that time. “You have to be choosy and use that time for something you think is really important,” she says. “I’m a highly, highly inquisitive person about all sorts of things, so for me, I try to structure a percentage of my time—sacred time—where I really need to double down and figure something out. It really comes down to how much effort you’re willing to put into it. Energy equals effectiveness, and effort equals results.”

Bill Jensen, a workplace futurist, agrees that tech workers must stretch themselves. However, that’s difficult to accomplish unless they get a better handle on who they are and how they work.

Scientific studies have shown that while most of us believe we know who we are, that isn’t necessarily true, Jensen points out. That means that technologists don’t necessarily challenge their thinking on a daily basis.

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“You may have always worked in a way that A led to B, which led to C, and so on. But what the workplace is really demanding now is quantum leaps in thinking, so that A leads to Z and back to C. That doesn’t really happen with the analytical mind,” says Jensen, author of "Future Strong: How to Work Unleashed, Lead Boldly and Live Life Your Way."

Avoiding the echo chamber

Adapting to new ways of learning and learning flexibility in thought processes was explored in a study by Miri Barak and Ariella Levenberg, of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. The study found that to become more adaptable, you must be willing to involve yourself in unfamiliar situations. “This can be learning a new topic, a new learning environment, or a new problem to solve,” they wrote. “As part of flexible thinking, adaptability allows a learner to engage with these unfamiliar situations in an efficient way.”

One way to stretch your thinking is to find a coach or mentor “and then tell them you want them to make you feel uncomfortable,” Jensen recommends. Specifically, tell your mentor that you want to be challenged. Contract with the mentor “to make you pissed off and frustrated,” he says.

Rice has a network that includes CEOs, entrepreneurs, and company board members who prevent her from operating in an echo chamber. “I think you have to work hard to make that happen—it doesn’t come for free,” she says. “Keeping your network broad and diverse is really important.”

Another way to shake yourself up and encourage new thinking is to take on a project that scares you. “For every five projects you’re working on, one should be riskier than the others—to the point you’ve no idea how you’re going to work out the problem,” Jensen says. “If you can’t find this project on your own, tell the boss you want something more challenging.”

Rice says that every two to three years, she takes on a high-risk project that may end in failure. “But I would kick myself if I didn’t try. Whatever I learn from that has helped me.”

If you are a manager, be ready to help your staff embrace the idea of stepping outside their comfort zones. If you expect people to do things the same old way, you’ll get the same old results. If your company is sincerely committed to making big changes—even if you don’t tag them as “digital disruption”—you need to let the staff find those new ways of approaching problems. Encourage workers to do things that jar new ideas.

For example, one research study found that workers need time to let their minds wander. Certain regions of the brain get a jumpstart when doing tasks that don’t demand a lot, so it may be important to let workers do some boring, repetitive tasks. Further, a Stanford University study found that creative thinking improves while walking (inside or outside), so it isn’t a bad idea to urge tech workers to get out from behind their workstations.

In addition, leaders have got to be ready to offer necessary support for workers who push themselves into unfamiliar territory.

“When someone takes on a new assignment, make sure that she knows you have her back if something doesn’t work,” Johnson says. “And the way that works is that you’ve got to go to your manager and make sure he has your back.”

Many successful people have learned from failures, Jensen points out, which is why leaders shouldn’t be afraid to let teams fail—and to let each member feel that pain in a personal way.

“People in Silicon Valley like to talk about ‘failing forward,’ but what they don’t talk about is that people distance themselves from the failed project. They don’t feel it personally. But they need to be willing to take on that personal vulnerability in order to truly grow,” Jensen says. “Look at Steve Jobs. He learned from failure and was humbled by it. He used his failure to turn things around.”

Smart risks for tech careers: Lessons for leaders

  • A successful career depends on a willingness to step outside of your comfort zone and try new ideas.
  • Look for honest feedback from mentors who challenge your thinking. Go after projects that scare you.
  • Don’t distance yourself from failure. Take on that personal vulnerability in order to grow.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.