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

Paul Saffo defines “strong opinions, weakly held” as an effective mindset for foresight or making forecasts. This is a good approach for entrepreneurs.

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

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.”

Updating Your Forecast

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

I recently came across this quote 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 that are  otherwise available to us.

“There is nothing as uncertain as a sure thing.”
Kin Hubbard in “These Days

Postscript: “Genuine opinions, thoughtfully presented”

Benjamin Pollack takes a blog post by Bob Sutton “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held” (which credits Saffo for the phrase) and suggests a better approach: “Genuine opinions, thoughtfully presented

“The opinions should be genuine because you should actually believe them […] You should have thought through things at least long enough that you do actually believe what you’re about to say.

But as soon as you reach that place, you should thoughtfully present that opinion. It’s an opinion, after all, but it’s one you took time to create. Everyone makes mistakes, including you, but also—and this is important—the person you’re talking to. […] If you don’t present your opinion, I’ll never have a chance to realize I was wrong, you’ll never have a chance to validate you’re right, and we both lose out. And as long as you do it thoughtfully, I’ll be able to calmly discuss your opinion with you so that we can resolve our differences, regardless of which of us—if, indeed, either of us—is correct at the onset.”
Benjamin Pollack in “Genuine opinions, thoughtfully presented

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