Strong opinions, weakly held


When building something, we need to balance between what we feel strongly about and getting users to validate it. How do we balance our act?

We do it with strong opinions, held weekly.

Bob Sutton describes the origin and power of this phrase “Strong opinions, weakly held” in more detail:

”Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future. 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’. . . .

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.’”

– Bob Sutton, Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

When dealing with the complex new product development in an uncertain and changing environment, wise founders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.

Strong opinions

Let’s begin by exploring the idea of strong opinions. Strong opinions are not fundamental truths. Rather opinions are a working hypothesis used to guide your thinking, decisions, and actions. Dictionary definition of an opinion –

 An opinion  is:

“a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.”

A strong opinion is one based on the current best available information and knowledge. It’s a belief for which you have some evidence and one that you’re prepared to defend. Strong opinions are supported by strong arguments that validate your point of view.

Consider the alternative – weak opinions. When you have weak opinions:

You don’t develop robust arguments to support weak opinions.

Weak opinions don’t challenge people to debate and test the validity of the supporting argument.

Weak opinions don’t inspire the confidence necessary for you to take action, commit resources and accept the risk.

Weakly held

Holding an opinion weakly means:

You’ll listen to contradictory views and opinions.

You’re looking for evidence that may contradict your strong opinion.

You’re open changing your mind and your actions.

The strong opinions you hold today are based on your past experience. While strong opinions encourage you to develop strong arguments if your opinions are too strongly held you are much less likely to consider contradictory evidence and new information.

Wise founders act, whilst being open to change

Founders with strongly held opinions invest too much time and energy, supporting their existing beliefs. They fail to consider new information and ignore contradictory feedback.  As a result, they continue to make decisions and take action based on outdated ideas.

Wise founders are willing to be wrong. Rather than defending their ideas and opinions until death, they understand that being wrong makes room for change.

Wise founders take action as a way to gain the feedback necessary to validate their ideas.

Take action “as if” your strong opinions are true.

Acting “as if” reminds you that you’re taking action on the best available information.

Acting “as if” reminds you that you may be wrong.

Acting “as if” keeps you open to learning and changing direction.

Instead of seeking to find the right answers, acting “as if” means you focus on chipping away at the various ways that you may be wrong, resulting in you becoming more right over time.

Balancing act

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


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