Michael Natkin at Glowforge recently wrote a great post titled Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech.
I have never liked this entrepreneurial cliche. While I have a large personality, I don’t have a temper and I’m not argumentative. I try hard to listen (although I’m not always great at it), try to express my thoughts as “data” rather than “opinions”, and try to evolve my thinking based on the inputs that I get.
I’ve always felt that people who had “strong opinions loosely held” (SOLH) were simply being bombastic. Sometimes I could see that they were being provocative. Occasionally I’d give them credit for changing their mind about something based on new data. But usually, I discount their first opinion (or assertion) since I knew they didn’t have much conviction around it.
Michael’s post opened up an entirely new way for me to think about this, and to continue to dislike SOLH. He has two magic paragraphs in the post. The first is the setup:
“The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong. It is supposed to lead to a collegial, competitive environment in which ideas get a vigorous defense, the best of them survive, and no-one gets their feelings hurt in the process.“
There’s that word bombastic again. Hang on it to it while we get to the punchline of Michael’s post.
“What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.“
Unless the other people in the room are also bombastic, the discussion shuts down and the strong opinion loosely held is accepted, or at least reinforced. Power dynamics amplify this – if the leader is bombastic, head nodding ensues. If you are an underrepresented minority in the room, challenging the SOLH can be even more difficult.
Even if, as a leader, you have tried to establish a culture of challenging everyone’s’ opinions, the loudest, most forceful, and most assertive person in the room will often have the leading opinion. It’s exhausting, at least for some of us, to have to fight against that.
I’m not even sure that a “strong opinion loosely held” qualifies as something useful. I’m fine with “strong opinions supported by data and experience.” I’m less good with “strong opinions supported by belief” as I don’t really know what underlies “belief” for many people. But it’s the loosely held part that I struggle with.
Basically, a SOLH is simply a hypothesis. If someone says to me, “I have a hypothesis”, I assume they are asking me my view about their hypothesis. So – when someone presents me with a SOLH, you’ll often hear me ask “do you think that is the truth or is that a hypothesis?” I’ve found this pretty effective for breaking through the LH part.
Michael’s article has a gem in at the end about how to interact with the SOHL person that he goes through in the final section called This (Actually) Won’t Hurt A Bit. I won’t spoil it for you – go read it.
Over the past two weeks I’ve heard the word “contrarian” more times than I can count. Suddenly, to become a successful investor in any segment (angel, venture capital, public markets, debt markets) you have to be contrarian. The assertion that a “contrarian strategy” always wins seems to be in the air.
When I ask people what they mean by “contrarian”, I’m amazed at how often they define it as either as “actively investing” or “sitting on the sidelines.” Specifically, “there are too many people investing at this point – I’m going to take a contrarian approach and sit on the sidelines for a while.”
To me, contrarian means doing the opposite of everyone else. If everyone is buying, you are selling. If everyone is selling, you are buying. Our friends at Webster even give us an example:
“As an investor, he’s a contrarian, preferring to buy stocks when most people are selling.”
Now, to be fair, you can make the case that “not buying” when everyone else is buying is contrarian. But I have never thought about it that way. And, as the word contrarian enters the mainstream vernacular around entrepreneur / angel / VC land, I think it’s important to ponder what it really means, especially if the majority suddenly adopt a “contrarian strategy” which, by definition, ceases to be contrarian.
Do you remember the amazingly hilarious “We’re All Individuals” segment from Monty Python’s Life of Brian?