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Are strong opinions that useful?

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Firmly held ideas don’t have a great track record.

Strong opinions have little to commend them. They’re correlated with high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. Psychological studies say they are associated with ego rather than evidence and can be blamed for poor decision-making in times of stress.

Yet we all have opinions, some of them quite useful. Where is the line between dysfunctional self-belief and a healthy point of view?

It helps to distinguish between ‘strong’ opinions and ‘sound’ opinions. Both are sourced in our experience, but our histories often have an emotional component, which is not always positive.

‘Strong’ opinions can be anchored in negative events, bringing with them defensiveness, arrogance, fear and sometimes anger. They are not just destructive to you, but also to those around you, at home or at work.

Sometimes a good experience does the damage. Research In Motion (RIM), created the Blackberry, which grew an almost cult-like following. It was a great experience for both customers and management but they hung on way past it’s use-by date. Its share of the smart phone market is now below one percent.

Strong opinions can be useful. The problem is you don’t know which ones. Leaving them unchallenged, or in the hands of a dominant personality or CEO, means results can go either way. Theoretically, that’s why companies have boards.

A Stanford Business School study found powerful CEO’s were prone to overconfidence, risk-taking, and stereotyping. Other research shows they produce highly volatile performance in both stock returns and RoA. People in charge need to be challenged, including you.

The problem with being right.

I’ve previously referred to the research of Philip Tetlock. He examined the predictions of more than 20,000 forecasters over 20 years and found most to be wrong. That wasn’t that surprising. The real concern was that those who felt they were most right – the ones’ with the strongest opinions – turned out to be the most wrong.

Since then, Tetlock has worked on ways for people to improve their predictions, shining the torch of probability on their forecasts. Yet his work still shows most forecasters to be way off the mark.

So if ‘strong’ opinions turn out to be brittle, how can we curb their destructive power and make better decisions as a result.

What is a ‘sound’ opinion?

For a start, it’s based on evidence, not ego. Being open to analysis yields more creative solutions than something based on your own view being ‘right’.

Even when refined, a ‘sound’ opinion isn’t rigid. While it’s nice to have a world-view that speaks to logic or ideological purity, reality tends more to the grey. Success comes as much from muddling through as from crashing through.

Lastly, it accommodates change. A formula that proved successful in one MBA case study doesn’t automatically apply elsewhere. When things change, change your opinion. It’s the difference between being determined and being stubborn.

Developing a ‘sound’ opinion doesn’t mean inertia. You still have to make decisions but you need to check that your past experience is still relevant. For RIM, it wasn’t. Although the firm made minor changes to the Blackberry, their solution to a changing environment was largely more of the same.

What was required was something more sound.

Reader Comments (2)

Almost all the strong opinions I hear have an element of stereotyping to them but they don't always come from personal experience. People can have ridiculously firm views simply because they've never experienced anything beyond their own environment.

November 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElliott S Turon

Agree with everything you say but you'll never come between me and my blackberry. What's the matter with the rest of you. Don't you get it?

November 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRinnie T

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