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The Fair Witness in business strategy

Robert A. Heinlein introduced the concept of the "Fair Witness" in his 1961 science fiction novel "Stranger in a Strange Land".

In the novel, a Fair Witness is a person who is trained to observe and report facts without adding any interpretation, beliefs, opinions, assumptions or personal bias.

The idea is neatly summed up in this short exchange:

Jubal to Jill: "Even Cavendish did not--at least he won't say so. You know how Fair Witnesses behave."

Jill: ", I don't. I've never met one."

Jubal to Jill: "So? ANNE!"

Anne was on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, "That house on the hilltop--can you see what color they've painted it?"

Anne looked, then answered, "It's white on this side."

Jubal went on to Jill: "You see? It doesn't occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King's horses couldn't force her to commit herself...unless she went there and looked--and even then she wouldn't assume that it stayed white after she left."

Source: Urban Dictionary

While Heinlein's concept of the Fair Witness is obviously fictional, it provides an interesting yardstick to use when thinking about how we approach business strategy.

It is easy to fall into the trap of personal bias and opinion, especially when it comes to making strategic decisions. Sometimes, we tell ourselves and each other stories so often that we start to believe them to be true. By embracing the concept of the Fair Witness, we can gain a more objective and accurate understanding of markets, customers, and competitors, as well as of the business itself in terms of process performance, etc. We can ask ourselves, "do I have objective evidence that this is true, or am I relying on assumptions or opinion?"

That doesn't mean that personal opinions, beliefs, assumptions and extrapolations have no place in business. At the end of the day, business strategy often requires making subjective judgments based on incomplete information. There is always some risk involved. But, by embracing the concept of the Fair Witness, we can become more conscious of where we're relying on verifiable evidence and where we're relying on subjective judgment.

So next time you're making a strategic business decision, stop and ask yourself if you're acting as a Fair Witness or relying on opinion and assumption. If you're comfortable with the answer, go ahead. If you're not, perhaps you should stop and explore the evidence in more detail.

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