Paul Saffo: Forecasting is “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Quotes

From Paul Saffo’s blog entry for July 26, 2008:  “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

The point of forecasting is not to attempt illusory certainty, but to identify the full range of possible outcomes. Try as one might, when one looks into the future, there is no such thing as “complete” information, much less a “complete” forecast. As a consequence, I have found that the fastest way to an effective forecast is often through a sequence of lousy forecasts. Instead of withholding judgment until an exhaustive search for data is complete, I will force myself to make a tentative forecast based on the information available, and then systematically tear it apart, using the insights gained to guide my search for further indicators and information. Iterate the process a few times, and it is surprising how quickly one can get to a useful forecast.

Since the mid-1980s, my mantra for this process is “strong opinions, weakly held.” Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the “strong opinion” part. Then –and this is the “weakly held” part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.

This is a difficult perspective to maintain in the face of so much economic turbulence and continual technological revolutions.  But until I can come up with a better one it’s what I am going to stick with.

Startups and small firms are able to avoid macro-economic trends by navigating to emerging opportunities.  Large firms are less nimble and find it harder to escape average performance. It’s not clear to me that Silicon Valley as a whole can escape the effects of being situated in a California economy that is collapsing and a state government that is effectively bankrupt.  But individual firms can move to segments of the economy that will grow (or at least remain stable).

At least that’s what I keep telling myself: “In the midst of this downturn, keep looking for where the new opportunities are emerging.”

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Postscript Wed-Aug-18:  I came across this quote today

“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”
Paul Valery

and realized that this is the entrepreneur’s perpetual challenge: we have to let go of our nostalgia for our imagined (or anticipated) future and deal with the real options that we have created or are  otherwise available to us.

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