Here’s what you can do about them
How many projects or features have you worked on where you had all the information you needed laid out right in front of you?
Which is why making great decisions with incomplete information is an essential part of solving problems and shipping value. As projects grow in complexity, so too does the likelihood of us having incomplete data to base our decisions on.
At Shopify, we often reference the mental model of “strong opinions, loosely held” — it helps us combat complexity by recognizing that we can’t let incomplete information slow us down, but we also have to be ready to change our minds as we get new information.
Although “strong opinions, loosely held” helps us make decisions, if it’s misinterpreted it can get us into trouble.
What do I mean by that?
I mean, having an opinion is easy. Doing the work required to have an opinion is hard. This is where the notion of “loosely held opinions” becomes really important. And to be honest, falls short in conveying the necessity of changing your mind when presented with new or disconfirming information.
So I’d like to augment this mental model to help us better discuss and solve problems.
If there’s one takeaway you get from this read, it’s that in order to get better at solving problems, we need to start with questions. Not opinions.
Let me explain.
We hold opinions on just about everything.
We might read a few articles on a topic and come to a conclusion about how things are or form strong opinions about how things should be. Sometimes we only seek out information that confirms what we think we already know.
For example, at Shopify our core product has a Home feed that gives our merchants key information.
This may lead us to decide that we should provide a similar experience for the main interface used by our partners, who work closely with merchants. Doing so allows us to expose ‘at a glance’ information, onboarding-specific info, announcements, and updates, and generally improve the discovery of key information and overall understandability of our product.
However, if we form this opinion on anecdotal evidence, by word-of-mouth discussions or as an appeal to authority, we haven’t really done the work required to have this opinion.
And by that, I mean, we haven’t built a true understanding of the subject so that we can articulate or argue every side of it.
👆This is precisely what “loosely held” is intended to facilitate; the willingness to change your opinion when presented with new and/or disconfirming evidence. But because it’s much easier to form an opinion than to change one, we need to equip ourselves with the tools to combat this.
We need to start with questions to build a true understanding of things.
Seems simple enough. But how do you know when you truly understand something or just know something? What’s the difference? And how do you build a “true understanding” of things?
Let’s unpack these questions and tie them to some actionable tools we can use in our everyday lives to better solve problems.
First. What is the difference between knowing something and understanding something?
When you know something, you believe it to be true based on anecdotal evidence, instinct, or conditioned behavior. You can’t explain it in simple, non-jargony terms. When you know something you can’t discuss the topic at various levels of zoom or clearly articulate the second-order effects from points of view that don’t rely on memorization.
On the flip side, when you understand something you can “answer the next question”. You can deconstruct a concept into its simplest terms and forms. You can draw comparisons and analogies and articulate the system and all it’s moving pieces in a way that is approachable and easily understood by non-subject matter experts. When you understand something, you’ve done the work required to have an opinion.
Second. How can you tell if you truly understand something? And how can you build a true understanding of things?
One of the best methods I’ve found to test your understanding is called the Feynman Technique:
Step 1: Pick a problem, concept, or topic.
Step 2: Teach it to a child (or just write out your current understanding as though you’re teaching it to a new student or toddler. Use concise, plain language and no reference material).
Step 3: Identify the gaps in your knowledge or where your explanation falls short.
Step 4: Review, simplify, and try again.
(More here on Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist who created the technique amongst many other crazy accomplishments and works.)
Approaching concepts and problems in this way helps you check the bounds of your understanding. You’re forced to deconstruct concepts and problems into their simplest terms. And as an added benefit, it helps improve your ability to communicate with others. Now, you might be wondering:
“Ok, but how do I use this technique when I’m on the receiving end? When someone is explaining something to me?”.
Start with questions.
By starting with questions you not only clarify your own understanding but also help others clarify theirs.
Sometimes it’s only in explaining a concept that you realize you don’t fully understand it.
So when you start to explain how something works or pitch a solution to a problem, and you find yourself having trouble articulating your rationale or losing your audience, it may be a signal to update your understanding of the underlying problem.
Or if you’re struggling to understand how a certain solution is the correct approach for a project or feature, probe deeper with questions to clarify and understand the underlying problem.
In both cases, the result is that you move closer to understanding why a certain approach may or may not be best suited for a task. Once you’ve done that, you can more confidently form a strong opinion.
So let’s keep having strong opinions, loosely held. But as we do, let’s first seek to understand, then later to interpret and prescribe. Because when we start with questions and build a true understanding of things, we’re better able to approach the problems we’re trying to solve in a meaningful way. Both as individuals and as a team. ❤️
Here’s a quote by Charlie Munger I think sums up the general idea quite well:
“The ability to destroy your ideas rapidly instead of slowly when the occasion is right is one of the most valuable things. You have to work hard on it.
Ask yourself what are the arguments on the other side. It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents.
This is a great mental discipline.”
— Charlie Munger