Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Instituite Director Paul Saffo. Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

Everything in software is so new and so frequently being reinvented that almost nobody really knows what they are doing. It is amateurs who make all the progress.

When it comes to software development, if you profess expertise, if you pitch yourself as an authority, you’re either lying to us, or lying to yourself. In our heart of hearts, we know: the real progress is made by the amateurs. They’re so busy living software they don’t usually have time to pontificate at length about the breadth of their legendary expertise. If I’ve learned anything in my career, it is that approaching software development as an expert, as someone who has already discovered everything there is to know about a given topic, is the one surest way to fail.

Experts are, if anything, more suspect than the amateurs, because they’re less honest.

I’ll never be one of the best. But what I lack in talent, I make up in intensity.

To me, writing without a strong voice, writing filled with second guessing and disclaimers, is tedious and difficult to slog through. I go out of my way to write in a strong voice because it’s more effective. But whenever I post in a strong voice, it is also an implied invitation to a discussion, a discussion where I often change my opinion and invariably learn a great deal about the topic at hand. I believe in the principle of strong opinions, weakly held.

So when you read one of my posts, please consider it a strong opinion weakly held, a mock fight between fellow amateurs of equal stature, held in an Octagon where everyone retains their sense of humor, has an open mind, and enjoys a spirited debate where we all learn something.

As leaders we should always question new ideas and ensure they’re supported by fact. However, when there is mounting evidence and experience that shows our ideas and beliefs are wrong, we should not resist change. This is why wise leaders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.

When dealing with the complex practices of strategy, leadership and innovation in an uncertain and changing environment wise leaders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.

Strong opinions are not fundamental truths. Rather opinions are a working hypothesis used to guide your thinking, decisions and actions.

Wise leaders emphasise experimentation over theory. They understand that experimentation is a requirement for agility.

The fastest way of moving into the future is through defining and validating a series of hypotheses. Formulate an hypothesis based on the best available information – adopt a strong opinion. Then act, seeking feedback, adjusting as you go – weakly held.

The point of forecasting is not to attempt illusory certainty, but to identify the full range of possible outcomes. Try as one might, when one looks into the future, there is no such thing as “complete” information, much less a “complete” forecast. As a consequence, I have found that the fastest way to an effective forecast is often through a sequence of lousy forecasts. Instead of withholding judgment until an exhaustive search for data is complete, I will force myself to make a tentative forecast based on the information available, and then systematically tear it apart, using the insights gained to guide my search for further indicators and information. Iterate the process a few times, and it is surprising how quickly one can get to a useful forecast.

Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the “strong opinion” part. Then –and this is the “weakly held” part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.

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