Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

I try to write and accept feedback with an open posture of “strong opinions, weakly held”, advocating for what I believe but ready to change and refine with new information. Letting go of or altering our pet notions is difficult. Confirmation bias is a cozy blanket. Practice at being wrong in public helps develop the necessary critical distance.

There is so much to know and so many perspectives and angles. None of us are experts, not really. We’re all amateurs on learning curves approaching infinity. We can distill in our writing only the merest fraction of what we know, and what we know is the merest fraction of what there is to know. Write strongly while knowing our ignorance and knowing the curve goes on forever.

A couple years ago, I was talking to 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 Institute 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.”

Source: Strong Opinions, Weakly Held – Bob Sutton

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.

Source: Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

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.

Source: Wise Leaders Keep Strong Opinions, Weakly Held • George Ambler

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 point 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.

Source: Strong Opinions weakly held : Paul Saffo

2 thoughts on “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

  1. see Bernie Glassman Sensei; to grounded and connected, engaging things social w/o warping BuddhaDharma the way practically everybody else does: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetsugen_Bernard_Glassman
    Bernie was big on “not knowing”, which he coupled tightly to inquisitiveness i.e. not just blundering around in self-inflicted ignorance. A notion I like: “collapsing the probability waves”. Whether I’m unfrabbing NORAD/SAC’s 4,300 mile microwave system or unfrabbing the engine in my beloved 1988 VW Rabbit my approach is the same: start out by knowing //nothing//.

    A very useful virtue (perhaps they are all of them useful?) for me is to thinking through an opinion or observation til it’s clear //without// subscribing to it as true, without investing self. So all of that stuff is contingent on what turns up next.

    Seems to me that being a good person / good citizen calls upon some of the same skills and tactics and craft that make for a good technician / technologist / researcher!

    p.s. this again is why I shit-canned conventional politics in my early 20s (after trash-canning my military career): conventional games call for conventional duplicity and deceit and mendacity &tc &tc &tc. Place to start? “What do I know for sure? and just why do I care about this idea so much more than /that/ one? As though reality and veracity (facticity?) matter more than just winning the argument.

    Like

    1. Addendum: shuffling this post and the article through a heap of tabs they came to rest right beside this:
      http://www.pennutrition.com/
      #EvidenceBased was a strong movement in medical practice; #PracticeBased I don’t see as often, but it’s maybe easier to implement.

      p.s.
      s / “Bernie Glassman Sensei; to grounded and connected” / “so grounded and connected”

      testing strong? emph?

      Like

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