Strong Opinions, Weakly Held: Lessons from Mark Zuckerberg & Steve Jobs
I’ve often seen the phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” used to indicate both a focused approach to achieving an outcome but also flexibility in the face of new data. This is an important characteristic of some of the most successful leaders in tech and I thought it was about time I fleshed out this philosophy in more detail as it applies to product management.
Weak Opinions, Strongly Held
The first question is what’s the difference between a strong opinion versus a weak one in product management? A strong opinion is one where there is a clear point of view and the product team goes all in on that point of view. Apple going touch based with the iPhone when every other device had a keyboard is such an example. A weak opinion is when a product decision is a tentative half measure because the team either lacks the clarity or commitment to go all the way. Microsoft’s Windows 8 which was neither a good desktop OS nor a good tablet OS while trying to be both is an example of a weak opinion.
The difference between strongly held versus weakly held opinions should be clear. When a product team decides to ignore user feedback, market research or the competitive landscape and keeps soldering on in a clearly bad direction, that’s an example of being bitten by a strongly held opinion. My favorite recent example is Snapchat rolling out their redesign to negative initial feedback from internal & external voices but then rolling that redesign to everyone and losing millions of users.
There are multiple famous examples of Steve Jobs making a strong statement about what features Apple devices would support then reversing direction by elegantly integrating such functionality in Apple products. Steve Jobs famously saying nobody reads anymore in 2008 then rolling out iBooks in 2010 and saying there’d be no video on iPod because Apple was focused on music in 2004 only to ship video on their portable devices are great examples of saying no until it was time to say yes.
However my favorite example is Steve Jobs going from not wanting 3rd party developers to sully his awesome iPhone experience to creating the App Store and revolutionizing software discovery, acquisition & monetization across the entire industry. This quote from the revolution Steve Jobs resisted captures the moment well
According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, the tech guru was opposed to allowing third-party to run natively on iPhone — and when pressured to do so by developers and others, he had a simple answer: Develop your own web apps that will work on the new platform.
However, after the backlash from developers continued, it soon became clear that keeping native apps out was not tenable for long.
“Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February,” Jobs wrote in a letter that October. “We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users.”
That ended up being millions of apps not hundreds.
The best way to sum up Facebook is that the only constant is change. As with Apple, there are many examples of Facebook going strongly in a particular direction then pivoting as trends begin to change. The most popular story being the tale of how Facebook went from a popular desktop site which treated mobile as an afterthought to being the world’s most popular mobile app. Key excerpts from Mashable’s article on the turnaround include
We took a bad bet,” the Facebook CEO said during last week’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. “Our legacy as a company was building this big website and focusing on being able to develop for the web. So naturally we tried to look at things and see if we could build an HTML5 system for across these different platforms and we just realized pretty quickly that we weren’t going to get the quality level that we needed.
When Facebook decided to revamp its mobile approach last summer, Zuckerberg refocused the company, giving each team mobile engineers and developers so that updates and new features could be built with the mobile experience in mind. “[Mark] said, ‘You know, we need to think about maybe putting mobile first and being a mobile-first company,’”
Facebook has since put hundreds of engineers through week-long iOS and Android classes on campus, Ondrejka said, and updates to the native apps come each month instead of three to four times a year.
A similar pivot can be observed in Facebook’s approach to sharing. For a long time Facebook was focused on its users sharing as much as possible with as many people as possible but over time has changed that position slowly first by rethinking some default permissions and earlier this year started to prioritize posts from your friends over news sites.
However the direction implied from their most recent earnings call is the biggest indication of how far Facebook has swung. During that call we learn from CEO Mark Zuckerberg that
We’re seeing the way people connect shifting to private messaging and Stories. We have great products here that people love, but it will take some time for our business to catch up to our community growth…Public sharing will always be very important, but people increasingly want to share privately too, and that includes both just smaller audiences with Messaging and ephemerally with Stories. People feel more comfortable being themselves when they know their content will only be seen by a smaller group and when their content won’t stick around forever. Messaging and Stories make up the vast majority of growth in the sharing that we are seeing.
This is a markedly different direction from what we’ve come to expect from Facebook and it’s clear they are going in this direction full force. A strong opinion, weakly held.
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