Strong convictions, weakly held

I first came across the phrase “strong convictions, weakly held” through Marc Andreessen, but a bit of Googling showed me it was originally coined by Paul Saffo, then Director of the Palo Alto Institute for the Future. According to this post he advised his people to think this way for three reasons:

  • It is the only way to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward
  • Because weak opinions don’t inspire confidence or action, or even the energy required to test them
  • Because becoming too attached to opinions undermines your ability to see and hear evidence that clashes with your opinion (confirmation bias)

Saffo came up with this logic almost 15 years ago, and as change happens faster and faster it has become increasingly compelling, to the extent that the importance of having “strong convictions, weakly held” is starting to become somewhat of a cliche amongst many of the best investors I know.

However, it applies to the whole startup world, not just investing. In fact it applies to anyone who is (or should be) searching for the truth, or more properly the closest approximation we can get to it. Much of the time in startups we have to make decisions based on minimal information in an environment that is fast moving and where there is no objectively ‘right’ answer. The best we can do is form an opinion based on the facts in front of us and then have the courage to act on that opinion. Then, and this is often the most difficult bit, we must find the courage to change our opinion if new information suggests we were wrong.

When investing as a VC that means quickly deciding which companies make attractive prospects, having the courage to divert time from other prospects to dive in and investigate them thoroughly, then having the courage to advocate them to our partners, then continuing to be courageous by continuing to search for reasons why a deal might not make sense, and then (if necessary) having the courage to say “I was wrong about this, I don’t think we should invest in this company after all”. This last part is tricky because it requires us to park our ego on the side of the road at a time when we’re already feeling bad about our wasted work and the lost opportunity. What makes it particularly hard is that often the reasons we find for not investing are ones that in hindsight should have been obvious earlier on.

I chose investing as an example because that’s the world I know best, but I could equally have chosen startup product decisions, marketing strategy, choice of tech stack, or hiring decisions. These are all areas where the best people have an ability to form strong opinions quickly and then remain open minded.

Note how this process is about a disciplined search for the best truth that we can find. That search is undermined when ego gets in the way and opinions get entrenched, which is the more natural human behaviour. Our confirmation bias makes us look for supporting data and makes us blind to counter arguments. In the best case this path leads to poorer decisions and in the worst case it results in conflict where protagonists read different sources of information and quote orthogonal facts at each other.

Ultimately it’s the job of founders, CEOs and leaders at every level to build a culture where people have the self confidence and courage to put themselves out there by forming strong opinions quickly and where it’s ok to change your mind later. Leading by example is crucial (as ever) but it’s also important to foster an environment where everyone’s opinions are respected and given space. We make ourselves vulnerable when we express an opinion, especially a strong one, and if we get shut down or dismissed it’s harder to find the courage to do it again the next time.