Strong opinions, loosely held

By | September 6, 2017

Love this expression. I first heard this in a Tim Ferris interview of Marc Andreessen here (min 6:10). Andreessen created the Netscape Mosaic browser (making the internet easy to navigate), sold it to AOL for $2B, then spent last 15+ years investing and running a dozen+ companies. Crazy smart guy. Listen to what he says. His VC firm has a podcast as well here.

As a start up entrepreneur or VC investor, you need to be confident and persistent with your product / company, but not to the point of stubborn financial suicide. This is true for any client-serving professional or consultant. When do you stick to your guns, and when do you change your mind?

Strong opinions. Management consultants are in the business of having opinions and making things happen. Clients don’t pay us to give flip-floppy recommendations (long pro/con lists with a lot of “well on the other hand”). Who wants to pay $250-600 per hour for lukewarm advice. We are consultants – not pundits, project managers, or staff-for-hire. Consider yourself a consultant? Then, come up with potential solutions, not equivocation.

Bring solutions. After 6-12 weeks on an assessment, you better have some hell-o-strong views. In reality, pro consultants have some strong ideas (read: hypotheses) on potential solutions even before they arrive on-site. Great proposals hint at potential answers. Sometimes 2 weeks is enough time to get a strong sense of the dysfunction or brokenness – the rest of the time is to confirm our initial thoughts, and get broad client buy-in. Start planning for the implementation phase of work to come.

Be confident. Yes, you need to believe in your analysis and recommendation enough to put on a pant suit, stand in front of executives, and convince them to take action. Leadership takes energy + risk. No one is going to be more confident of your work than yourself.

Does this mean that you are 100% right? Hell no.

Loosely held. It’s a paradox because (YES), you believe in what you are saying, but (YES) you are open-minded and can be convinced otherwise. Andreessen explains why he loves hanging out with hedge fund managers – namely, because they are open-minded, and willing to change their mind.

Most people hate changing their mind. . .The best hedge fund managers love changing their mind.  They are the most open-minded people.  They love when you tell them when you are wrong, “why, why do you think that?” Since they are hedge fund managers, they will flip their mind and reverse the trade. – Marc Andreessen

Stick to a process. If you know how you got to your conclusion – if you have “shown your work” as you went down the path, you are able to unwind the situation without being hypocritical. If you followed a consulting process to a dead-end, that is okay, “back the car up” and go down the other avenue.

Verbalize the assumptions. Any recommendation or argument hinges on several assumptions, and constraints. Make those assumptions very clear and watch to see if they break, change, or betray you.

Socialize the recommendation. As consultants, we don’t live at the company, we don’t know the history. There may be 3-4 reasons why our recommendations cannot / will not work.  Vet your recommendations early in the process.  Don’t go into the final report out without knowing what each-and-every-individual-client thinks about your recommendation. Socialize the results. As a partner once told me, “Don’t have a meeting in a meeting.”

Consider the time frame. On my very first consulting project, we were doing an organizational design for a specific function. It was a high-burn, 4-week project. We did great work, and had conviction. The client listened, said they agreed, then did NOTHING. Yikes, it looked like a huge fail – and yet – four years, I found out that they implemented most all of our recommendations. BOOM. Strong opinions, loosely held (because it might take 4 years).

Watch out for confirmation bias. Most of us hate changing our mind, so we seek out news, facts, friends, opinions which validate what we are already thinking. Surround yourself with smart people you trust – who have the relational capital to tell you things you don’t want to hear. Seek out alternate views. Don’t surround yourself with people who only agree with you.   

Watch your information diet. All the information we consume (yes, including this blog) has bias built-in.  Know what you are consuming, and deliberately consume news which contradicts that point of view. Eat your news vegetables (things that conflict with your world view), in addition to the sweets and snacks (your favorite news source).

Hone your judgment. Learn to listen and look for patterns. Patterns in logic. Patterns in organizational (dys)function. Patterns in business cycles. Patterns in management transitions and executive careers. Think about your own thinking. Here is a good question to test yourself:

When is the last time you changed your mind on a long-held belief? 

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