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Having Strong Opinions, Gently Held

It’s a paradox – the ability to have confidence in your ideas and the humility to doubt what you know. Technology forecaster and Stanford professor Paul Saffo developed this ideology. He refers to it as “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held.” “Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect,” says Saffo. “This is the ‘strong opinion’ part. Then – and this is the ‘weakly held’ part – prove yourself wrong.”

Recently, one of our clients – determined to be both definitive and flexible – was in the midst of a high stakes situation. It was the perfect opportunity to practice Saffo’s framework, allowing her to explore her intuition and, with help from her team, counter her own ideas. After moving through several iterations, they discovered the best course of action.

“Engage in creative doubt,” says Saffo. “Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that are 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.”

The above-mentioned referred to Saffo’s ideology as having strong opinions, gently held, not weakly, and we prefer this phrasing too. The connotation shouldn’t be that you’re weak for challenging your own thoughts or surrounding yourself with others who will do so. In our opinion, the goal is this: build a strong idea with evidence to back it up, but don’t hold on so tight that you blind yourself to better ideas.


Framework for Strong Opinions, Gently Held

While the inciting problem or question may change, the framework for Saffo’s ideology is solid. You can follow a step-by-step process within the context of your situation.

To practice Strong Opinions, Gently Held, follow these steps:

  • Start with incomplete information and a question/issue to solve. This may be an internal issue or something for a client.
  • Quickly develop a hypothesis or clear argument as to what the answer/solution is. Make this initial decision based on your expertise, intuition, problem-solving skills, and pattern recognition.
  • Gather any supporting and refuting evidence for your hypothesis. Can your idea be contradicted?
  • Find a team member, or multiple team members, who will offer you a different perspective and honestly challenge your thinking.
  • If you learn something that refutes the original hypothesis, change it.
    Reflect on the facts that ultimately changed your mind.


Why is this framework effective? 

This process allows you to leverage the knowledge of your entire team. Each member has a unique perspective gained from past experience, meaning they’re more likely to pick up on things you miss. It’s another excellent reason to encourage diversity among your team. If everyone has the same background, perspective, and opinion, then you’ll always reach the same conclusion. The chances of that being the best conclusion are slim.

Surround yourself with people who will disagree with you. There is so much value in a different opinion, boldly stated. Through continued use of Saffo’s framework, you can create the kind of environment where people feel comfortable speaking their mind.


Overcome your own biases

We all experience bias. It’s often unavoidable, but when we practice having strong opinions, gently held and encourage the same from others, we combat the underlying issue. Here are some common types of bias:

  • Confirmation bias: Once we form a perspective or hope for a specific solution, we start dismissing contradictory evidence. We gravitate toward details that confirm our point of view, and away from anything that does not.
  • Law of small numbers: We bias toward small samples with the belief they should resemble the population they represent. In this way, we lean toward anecdotal versus statistical evidence.
  • Over-optimism: We bias toward what we want to be true. We may even do this subconsciously.
  • Assigning cause to random chance: We may form connections where there are none, assigning meaning to otherwise random events.
  • Recency bias: We bias toward events, decisions, and news that is most fresh in our mind. 

The purpose of Strong Opinions, Gently Held is to counteract these biases and identify a wide range of plausible solutions. Together, you and your team will determine the best answer.

Saffo says, “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.”