Strong Opinions, Revisited

A better way of sharing and collaborating on new ideas

When I launched my first blog over a decade ago, I was struggling for a name. I was in the midst of winding down my failed tech startup, and I had experiences and ideas I wanted to share so that other would be entrepreneurs did not make the same mistakes.

I thought to call it “Failed Startup” or something in the vein of failure. I liked the brutal honesty of the word but did not like the negativity. It was then that I read a blog post by Bob Sutton called “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held”.

What does that mean? Bob Sutton was referencing an idea first conceived by Paul Saffo back in the 80’s. Paul said that it was better to state a hypothesis that you believe to be correct, but to be flexible enough to change your hypothesis when data and evidence runs counter to your opinion. Approaching decision making in this way helps avoid the analysis paralysis that can stymie progress towards a viable solution.

I liked the idea so much, I called my blog Strong Opinions. It conformed to my belief that people tended to either hold their opinions to themselves or had no philosophical core that guided their thinking. Decisions were more often made as concessions to appease instant gratification rather than based on long term goals and firm values.

Ten years later however, I think maybe it’s time to retire this idea.

Example of what someone with strong opinions looks

You may have heard the saying about how opinions are like a$$holes. Everyone has one. In this era of unfettered opinions and numerous channels by which to spout one’s opinions, we have achieved peak strong opinions. Problem though is everyone forgot the weakly held part.

Strong opinions can easily manifest into bullying and enable our most bellicose behaviors. Even if not intentional, the people positing their strong opinions can stifle the opening that allows others to present alternatives. The voice of one thus tramples the input and ideas of the many. This leads to poorer decisions and decimates team motivation.

The attitudes of those espousing strong opinions can have a particularly corrosive effect on technology teams. Core architectural issues end up getting decided more by the personal preference of the loudest voice than the implications and consequences of such choices. Decisions on features, discussions on delivery estimates, or choices on languages gets boiled down to blunt statements presented as absolutes by obnoxious jerks.

When we think of technical debt, technology teams often place the blame on the unrealistic expectations of business teams. That is not to be discounted, but that does not explain all of the reasons that tech debt accrues. Unyielding architectural dictates, tech zealotry, and personal motivations to work on cutting edge technologies all contributes to tech debt.

As humans, we have a natural tendency to defer to authority bias. Even if the person speaking is not in an official position of authority, just presenting an idea authoritatively will tend to cause others to defer rather than challenge the idea. Authority bias can lead to not just bad decisions, but unmitigated disasters as was the case of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant or the crash of Korean Air 801 on approach to Guam.

The best decisions it turns out, rarely arise from singular flashes of genius or the wisdom of authorities. The best decisions are made by teams that feel safe openly collaborating.

The term psychological safety has gained greater awareness in recent years led by the work of researchers like Amy Edmondson of Harvard. Her study of surgical teams in 1998 highlighted the importance of safety as a critical component to acquiring new skills. Google’s Project Aristotle also demonstrated that safety was the number one factor contributing to team effectiveness.

Why does safety matter so much? In the book “The Culture Code”, author Daniel Coyle starts with a story of an experiment that sheds light on this mystery. Challenging a team of business school students and a group of kindergarteners to build the tallest tower using a handful of items, which team would win?

The kindergarten kids demolished the business school team. They also beat teams of engineers, CEO’s, etc. Adults were too busy playing unconscious “status management”, seeking cues on how to relate, what to say, and when to interrupt. The kindergarteners had no such concerns and were solely focused on the challenge. In other words, they were free from blame or judgement to simply be creative, to fail, to criticize, and to iterate.

When those “safety cues” are lacking, team members default to a culture of mistrust and self-preservation. In contrast, the best team cultures experience higher engagement, deeper collaboration, faster progress, more creative solutions, and better outcomes. For technology teams, this translates into better software delivered faster at higher quality.

“Strong opinions, weakly held” as a framework once had merit. Unfortunately, it became a sledgehammer used by people that lack the nuance of collaborative thinking and the inability to engage in thoughtful conversation. The level of assertiveness introduced diminished empathy and allowed toxic aggressiveness to eviscerate trust among team members.

Instead we should practice being more vulnerable in our communications. There are two practical and easy methods to implement this idea:

1) State an opinion as a possibility — To do that, we inject probabilities or modifiers to our statements as Michael Natkin, VP of Software Engineering at Glowforce shares. This let’s people know that the statement being offered is open to discussion.

2) Follow an opinion with a question — In “The Culture Code”, Dave Cooper, a US Navy SEAL commander, shared that he would add questions to statements such as “what do you think” or “how would you approach it”. This created the expectation that it was okay for anyone on the team to openly question the statements of a commanding officer.

Both approaches signal to team members that it is safe to collaborate and offer their ideas. The other benefit is that adding just the whiff of uncertainty helps you keep an open mind and staying vulnerable so that others feel safe to also be vulnerable.

Have you experienced “strong opinions, weakly held” statements in team discussions? How have you fostered a culture of vulnerability and collaboration on your team?

L. David Marquet: “Turn the Ship Around” | Talks at Google

Hat tip to Charity Majors, CTO of Honeycomb, who shared this over Twitter, the story and lessons shared applies so well to the essay above.

New Heretechs podcast episodes are coming in January! In the meantime, check out past episodes by finding them on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts and please give us a like and subscribe 😁

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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