strong opinions, loosely heldproceed with purpose and fail fast

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Strong opinions, loosely held. This phrase has been a part of my workplace's culture for as long as I can remember, it didn't quite resonate with me at first. Perhaps because I saw it too simply: being confident in your data-informed opinions and being open to changing those opinions with new evidence. And while that is what it means, I've learned it goes much deeper than that.

As with any even remotely introspective concept, it's open to interpretation, and means different things to different people. But for me, it was a simple analogy of a hiker that put it into a perspective that clicked.

Imagine you're on a solo hiking adventure in a dense forest. As you trek deeper, you reach a clearing with two diverging paths, neither of which is marked. You don't have a map, and your GPS signal is weak. Both paths appear to be in good shape, and leading in the right direction. But time is ticking; the sun is setting, and you need to find your way to a safe shelter before nightfall.

You have a decision to make, and you've got three options:

  1. Take the path on the left
  2. Take the path on the right
  3. Do nothing

Throughout history, it's been widely agreed that doing nothing is pretty much the worst thing you can do. The sun will inevitably set, and you'll be no closer to shelter, left in a potentially dangerous and unnavigable forest at night. Great.

So, you decide to take one of the paths. But you still have no evidence to suggest one path is better than the other or whether it leads to shelter. You choose a path based on your gut feeling. At random even. But soon after setting down the path, uncertainty about your choice creeps up on you. You tread carefully, and slow your pace. This is a critical mistake; almost as bad as doing nothing. On the surface, it may seem like your doubt-slowed pace has only delayed your progress. But it's actually amplified your risk considerably.

Eventually you reach the end of the path, and it's a cliff. A dead end. The path you chose was wrong, and didn't lead to shelter. It's closer to nightfall, and you're in more danger than you were before. But if you dragged your feet along the way, doubting your decision (even though it was the wrong decision), then it's probably nightfall already. Not good.

This scenario exemplifies the first part of the phrase: strong opinions.

It's about moving forward decisively, with purpose and speed. Time is precious; you need to act quickly to find shelter before nightfall.

But it still turned out to be the wrong path! That's where weakly held comes in.

Even though you proceeded down the unknown path with purpose, you need to let go of any pride, stubbornness, or feeling of sunk cost. Remember your ultimate goal: reach shelter before nightfall. The path you were on ended. So what? Turn around, once again proceed with purpose, and try the other path.

While strong opinions, loosely held is (or can be) about opinions, it's also a simple and effective framework rapid learning and adaptation. And it's widely applicable across just about every facet of life and business.

The quicker you commit to a direction (strong opinions), the sooner you'll discover its viability (weakly held).