Define Your Agenda Before It’s Too Late

Let’s talk about the trade-offs between taking the time to do your homework on something and getting ahead through decisive action.

My father is running for a seat on the school committee of my hometown and I’ve been helping him put together his website. His initial list of campaign priorities emphasized broad themes: academic excellence, teacher quality, things that few would disagree with.

I’ve pressed him for details how exactly he plans to fulfill these priorities. More teacher training? New classroom technology? Overhauling the teacher hiring process? He would demur, not wanting to advocate for any specific policies before he has a better understanding of his constituents. Sure, the election is months away, but with a better known candidate also in the race, I’m concerned his nebulous platform won’t win him any new supporters. [1]

I get where he’s coming from. Like a political leader, a product manager is tasked with driving changes that will benefit a broad, diverse population, changes that are constrained by time and resource limitations, and require collaboration from many stakeholders.

As a PM, I might have my own laundry list of projects that will solve problems for users, but I also have to weigh those ideas against user feedback, historical data, the initiatives of other teams, staffing allocation, org-wide initiatives and more.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that I often erred on the side of too much research and coordination, and not enough on explaining and building momentum for my own ideas.

You can’t let a lack of perfect information prevent you from holding and communicating your opinions. Of course it’s important to do proper diligence on your ideas so you can make informed decisions, but if you wait too long to define your position and make your case, you might find that a consensus has already been formed by those who didn’t wait to start advocating for their views. I’d much rather have a vigorous debate and be proven wrong than to be too late to the discussion.

The truth is, everyone is wrong, it’s only a matter of degree. Even Science, the proud institution that birthed modern society through its relentless pursuit of knowledge, is currently grappling with the realization that a significant percentage of published, peer-reviewed findings may be false. If millions of researchers, scientists, and professors could be wrong, what chance do we have?

Any plan of sufficient scope, complexity, or time horizon is bound to have major flaws. And we just have to live with that, with “strong opinions, weakly held”. This concept was coined in the 1980’s by Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who teaches at Stanford University. As he puts it:

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.

I love using “strong opinions, weakly held” as a guideline for acting decisively in an uncertain and changing world. Pick a stance, a direction, a working hypothesis, then never stop iterating on it.


Footnotes

[1] One thing take away from the 2016 US Presidential election is that the whatever else you could say about Trump, the campaign repeated a few specific ideas over and over again, including a border wall, extreme vetting for immigrants, and repealing and replacing Obamacare. While Clinton had specific policies as well, they were harder to articulate in a bite-sized way and not widely repeated or understood.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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