Strong opinions, loosely held

Posted on January 23, 2023.
black and white close up on dandelions petals flying after being blown up by woman
Photo by Bayram Er on

In the early days of my current career I learned a lot from Janice Fraser. One of the most powerful phrases I learned from her was “strong opinions, loosely held.” In many ways, if you wanted to sum up the whole agile, lean startup, design thinking, lean ux world of thinking in one pithy phrase, this would be it.

This is the definition of humility

So much of what is negatively impacting modern businesses is caused by a lack of humility. The majority of folks misunderstand the word. It doesn’t mean the abdication of leadership or vision. Quite the opposite. It means taking a stand based on your experience and expertise. It means justifying your point of view and any leadership direction you set with that same experience and expertise. However, if evidence comes back from the market that contradicts your experience and expertise, you’re willing to change course. You’re humble enough to recognize that you were wrong and to learn from the contradictory evidence to point the organization in a new, more promising direction. Strong opinions, loosely held. 

Empowered decision-making

This same little phrase helps us bias our teams towards action. Teams regularly get stuck attempting to focus on a specific direction. We want to target all the customers. We want to build all the features. Pretty soon the possibilities are overwhelming, freezing the team in its tracks unable to decide how to proceed. The team is afraid they’ll leave out a key audience segment or not take into account how adding yet another feature might improve the user experience. 

It’s in these exact instances that we break out our pithy little phrase again. Someone on the team (often the product manager) will have to make a decision. In this case they are going to exercise a strong opinion. “We’re focusing on returning customers rather than acquiring new ones. In addition, we’re going to ensure that repeat purchases are as frictionless as possible.” They’ll use their experience and expertise to justify that decision. The team is unfrozen and can start moving forward. Is this the right decision? Maybe. We’ll know more as the team starts to experiment and ship small features to production. Once the evidence comes back, if the strong opinion was correct, fantastic. We keep going. However if the evidence doesn’t reflect the success criteria the team has set for itself they can now go back to the backlog of ideas they generated at the beginning of the initiative. 

Using the information they’ve learned working on the first decision they can now make a more informed second decision (and subsequent ones as well). Once again, strong opinions, loosely held, helps a team get out of analysis paralysis while ensuring they can change course if that decision proves invalid. 

Janice has a new book coming out. You can learn more and pre-order it here

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