Weak opinions, strongly held

Chatting with one of my coworkers, we recognized that there’s a pattern that is the inversion of the somewhat popular “strong opinions, weakly held” framework. 

This pattern is most commonly found in situations where the power dynamics are severe, like in a meeting between a VP and a junior engineer. While the VP might be sharing some thoughts they find interesting, the engineer will be having a hard time not interpreting them as directions. And if unable to resist that temptation, they may find themselves executing on a poorly-formed idea with the full conviction of the reporting level differential: weak opinions, strongly held.

Google has several early-day legends, possibly apocryphal, about its founders’ idle musings turning into projects overnight, then hurriedly cancelled in embarrassment. “Larry said he wanted <foo>, so that’s what we’re doing now.” Nobody’s happy in this situation: the executive is frustrated in their inability to contribute nuanced perspectives, and the team loathes marching in resentment toward the destination they know is futile. If they’re lucky, there will be that one engineer who goes “Whaaat? This is bonkers!” despite the shushing of the colleagues. Or if not, the leading while sleepwalking trap gets set.

In my experience, this pattern pops up more often in teams that struggle with the culture of examining ideas. To examine an idea, one needs to be able to hold it apart from people (and their power) associated with it, to turn it this way and that. Given how quickly we humans embed ourselves in our ideas, this mindset requires ongoing practice. The practice might be part of the process. When designing Blink governance, we wanted all feature proposals to go through a transparent, public process, with a forum for the proposal discussion to take place. The practice might also look like leads regularly sharing their missteps and reflecting on them. Whatever form it takes, this practice is often uncomfortable, feels like friction and something to be optimized away

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