Saturday, January 26, 2008

Strong Ideas Weakly Held

Learning something new on a Saturday morning
by Charlie Leck

There’s nothing more exciting than learning something new – that is, than hearing of a new concept. So, I got pretty excited this morning when that happened.

Mother has gone west, to ski with her sister and I am an old bachelor, alone, for the next several days. I can do things that, in partnership, I cannot do. This morning I awakened quite early. Though I was wide awake, my body was still in need of rest. So, I touched the little button pad that brings our bedside radio to life and I lay in bed listening to the BBC broadcast of that morning. One of my least favorite kinds of shows was on, but the voices were distinguished and intriguing. They held my attention. Peter Day, on his World News in Business Show, was interviewing Paul Saffo, a futurist (or futurologist).

There was a lot of prattle about this and that and nearly all of it was streaming by me at a high altitude. I was thinking more about the day ahead, which included a meeting with Al Franken, the comedian, activist, talking-head and announced candidate for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. Franken’s a very opinionated guy; but, in his case, because I agree with most of his opinions, that’s okay. He and I hold our opinions quite strongly.

Now, what was it the guy on the radio was advising? “Hold your strong opinions weakly!” Strange idea! Let me think about it. It’s one of his “six rules for effective forecasting – or, as Saffo put it in the Harvard Business Review: “the goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”

Saffo has credentials that make him seem worth listening to. He’s currently a professor at Stanford University. He has degrees from better than mediocre universities – Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford. In addition to the Harvard Business Review, his essays have appeared in the LA Times, the NY Times, the Washington Post, Fortune, Wired, Newsweek and many others. He’s also a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

Not bad! So what are the six rules?
  1. Define a Cone of Uncertainty
  2. Look for the S Curve
  3. Embrace the Things that Don’t Fit
  4. Hold Strong Opinions Weakly
  5. Look Back Twice as Far as You Look Forward
  6. Know When Not to Make a Forecast
That all sounds pretty interesting. Years ago I was introduced to a futurist and had a significant conversation with him. If I remember correctly, he worked for the 3M Corporation and tried to keep track of future trends for that company. Of the things he talked about on that occasion, many years ago, it seems he got a lot of things nailed correctly.

Far afield from futuristic forecasts, I thought this one ‘rule’ made sense in other fields, too – in politics, diplomacy, negotiations and arbitration and, perhaps also, in interpersonal relations.

The concept is that there is nothing wrong with holding very strong views and attitudes, but hold on to them in such a way that you are able to test them regularly – that you are able to be flexible and giving about them – that you are even able to let go of them if they don’t pass the tests you give them or fit facts of reality.

Suddenly, I would like to shout this to a whole bunch of friends who need to hear it: “Hold strong opinions weakly!”

In truth, I need to shout it to myself as well.What a remarkably simple idea. Who of us is brave enough to do it first? I’ll ask Al today?

This Saffo guy intrigued me so much that I spent a quiet, dark morning reading through a lot of the journal entries he makes on his web site – first jotting them down in a little memo book he carries everywhere. Here’s one on the possible temporary structure of democracy. He titled it Ungovernable Democracies.

“We ask our politicians to perform miracles with no resources, and often we elect them with hair-thin margins that prevent them from enjoying any real legitimacy. Behind this is a breakdown in civics -- voter turnout is low, and ever fewer citizens care enough to learn something about how their government actually works. Add in the usual round of dirty tricks and perpetual campaigning, and the net effect is the steady leaching out of legitimacy from democratic institutions around the globe.“

The open question is whether democracies can sustain their legitimacy in an age of such tight margins -- or whether there is a new political order on the horizon that will respond more effectively. It is too soon to call, but it is certainly premature to declare democratic triumphalism, for despite all its benefits, democracy may not be the governance structure that ultimately prevails in the Global Village.”

On blogging, I’ll quote Saffo’s entire journal entry from 28 October 2005 (hopefully not a copyright violation) and then end these jottings in this ‘history scratchpad.’

“If as Phil Graham once observed, News is history’s first draft, then blogs are history’s scratchpad. This new medium in the making is finding its place by offering greater intimacy and immediacy than traditional media, and above all, by giving voice to those left voiceless in the ever vaster wasteland of corporate media. Of course blogs can be unreliable, but like any scratchpad, they can also be quickly revised and corrected, or simply tossed away.

“Blogs obviously have plenty of immediate impact on current events, but as the corpus of scribbles grows, it is interesting to contemplate the role blog entries will have when we look back on them a decade or so from now. For the first time, historians will have a pool of present-tense musings from a wide range of people reflecting the public mood as events actually unfolded. Imagine if we had this sort of information pool for, say, 1941, or for the McCarthy era? How different our histories might have been.”
I’m going to keep reading Saffo and looking more on this rule of his – “Hold strong ideas weakly” – and I’ll fill you in if I discover some wise stuff.

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