The Straw Man Concept

Build it Up, Knock it Down, and Create a Solid Final Solution

A straw man is a rough prototype.

© iStockphoto/PeskyMonke

When the three little piggies built a house of straw, what happened? That's right, the big bad wolf blew it away! 

The same could be said of a straw man proposal. This is the name given to a first draft proposition that can be put together rapidly with incomplete data, so that you can create a temporary solution to a problem while you are working on something better. 

A "straw man" can be very useful, as long as people know that it has been designed to be pulled apart. When you begin a project or start looking into a problem, you often have incomplete information to work with. Rather than wait while you gather all the facts and data, a "straw man" lets you get going straight away with an incomplete solution, with the intention of finding a much better one, as you gain experience. Indeed, the criticism and testing that it receives provides vital feedback that can be used to develop a final outcome that is rock solid.

Suppose your revenue is falling and you have to come up with a better sales strategy. Using the straw man idea you might do the following:

  • Create a draft proposal to expand to new markets.
  • In your proposal, outline the markets that might offer good prospects, based on your initial judgment and experience.
  • Present your draft proposal to the team and tell them that it is a straw man – This is critical because everyone must clearly understand that your idea is the starting point and was created for the purpose of being critiqued.)
  • Analyze the proposal, find the weak points, clarify assumptions and decision-making criteria, and work on a refined proposal.
  • Draft a new proposal and repeat the process until a final decision is made. These subsequent proposals can be given names too: such as wood man, tin man and iron man.

In a culture that values being right, the notion of constructing a straw man is difficult to embrace. Why spend time drafting something that, ultimately, isn't going to be used? If you can get past this perception you will be surprised at how useful the technique can be. One of its main advantages is that it forces you to do something. Taking too long to deliberate the merits of an idea or hypothesis can be costly, as you risk never making a decision at all. With a straw man, you force an early, if incomplete, decision. This ensures that a final decision will be reached because doing nothing means accepting a poor plan by default.

Tip:

Be very careful when you're using a Straw Man approach that people understand what you're doing: The last thing you want is to develop a reputation for "coming up with half-baked ideas." Make sure that your document is clearly labeled as such, and that the people receive it understand what it is.

For this reason, you may only want to use this approach when you can control the paper's circulation and manage the way it is received.

A straw man is also useful in ensuring that everyone involved has a tangible concept to work from. Otherwise, there is a risk that people are working with different pieces of the whole, different perceptions, and different, unstated assumptions, as they continue to research and discuss aspects of the idea or solution.

The risk of using a straw man proposal is that, by definition, you are jumping to conclusions. Providing you are aware of this risk, you'll challenge, test, and retest the real solution and so use "jumping to a conclusion" as a vehicle to find a better conclusion.

A good technique for checking your solution and assumptions is the Ladder of Inference  . Use it to make sure that your final assumptions are valid, rather than "straw man" assumptions that won't stand up to the reality of your working solution.

Impact Analysis   is another great approach for determining where the straw man fails to deliver. By looking at the consequences of the proposed action, you are able to see the weak points and create a better plan.

Key Points

A straw man is a prototype solution to a problem, built on incomplete information and on ideas that have not been fully thought through. Even in this rough state, though, it helps ensure everyone involved has a common understanding of the initial concept.

The point of building the straw man is to knock it down and rebuild something much better. How you do that will depend on circumstances, and on the resources available to you. It is a good place to start, and it is often the push you need to get past decision-making paralysis, which plagues many projects, problems and decisions. By putting together a straw man, you take action and gain momentum to get moving towards a winning solution.

The next time you are faced with solving a problem or making a decision, consider building a straw man first. Don't be afraid to throw your ideas out there. Do be prepared, however, to use well developed problem solving and decision making skills and techniques to fine-tune your man made of straw into a strong and resilient creature, capable of withstanding the many pressure that real life will subject him to.

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Comments (7)
  • Bree wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Adele,
    I'm not sure if the straw man concept is not as useful in 'tightly regulated corporate environments' ... however, perhaps it should be used to help stretch their thinking and expand their horizons of what is possible!! Rather than simply a tool for creative type of environments!

    I recently ran a creativity workshop with the strategic planners of an advanced hi-tech company and they loved the idea of using different kinds of creativity techniques (which had some sort of structure and logic to them) to generate new ways of thinking. It was a big hit!!

    Bree
  • Adele wrote Over a month ago
    What a timely forum topic! I was just reading further on the site after posting a reply about change management and I had included a reference to using a straw man in the post I have just made.

    I've found the straw man concept really useful as it provides a way to get the 'bones' of a project or concept out to my team for 'fleshing out' with comment and refinement. It's great to be able to get feedback before the finished concept or project plan is tabled, and it provides a great starting point for the team's input plus a way to test work before putting it into practice.

    I can see what you mean, though, when you comment that a 'Straw man' must be identified as such - it would be embarrassing and potentially damaging to release such an unpolished or experimental piece of work if the recipients thought it was finished.

    It would be interesting to know how much others use this way of getting ideas into practice - I work in quite a creative occupation, with a lot of innovation and lateral thinking - maybe the straw man tool is not as useful in a more tightly regulated corporate environment?

    Kind regards
    Adèle
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    I also love the "straw man" idea since I also like using drafts, storyboards etc. to explore ideas, make suggestions, do proposals and just to get people thinking. Sometimes it's difficult to find a starting point for a proposal or a project outline, but the straw man allows for an unusual starting point, working towards what is logical and/or practical.

    Regards
    Yolandé
  • Bree wrote Over a month ago
    For me, the 'straw man' concept is similar to draft documents which I used to create and circulate for input. I would actually put 'DRAFT for DISCUSSION' on the header of each page and sometimes put notes in the document for specific areas to address or expand upon.

    It was a work in progress, yet, it was very clear that people had something to work with, rather than a blank page.

    If I was working on a project and needed other people's input, I would most certainly refer to my draft document like a 'straw man' just to grab people's attention and imagination! Thanks for bringing this idea to my attention.

    Bree
  • marmat wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks for your topic:

    I am in position where to propose a simple request that involves our payroll department and to invite members of the board for a quick learning session: I've been asked though to prepare and be more specific about what would I like to see from the learning session, and after reading your topic I learned that I should gather more information and let my other peers to know that my proposal will be a "straw man" first step before making it a final one.

    Good stuff!

    Freddie.
  • Helena wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all!

    I've chosen this article to be our Featured Favorite this week because its both powerful and simple to use. Too often we get hung up on working out every last detail because we start crafting our soluion. And in my experience, it's often much easier to see what you DO want when you have something concrete to start with - even if it turns out NOT to be what you want.

    I'd love to hear YOUR experiences of using "straw men", so please do share these by replying to this post!

    Click here to read the article:
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/page ... TMC_84.php

    Best wishes

    Helena
  • caz66 wrote Over a month ago
    I'm a programme office administrator and I was taking minutes in a meeting the otehr day between our project manager and some key people working on the project, and there was mention of a straw man. I had no idea what they were talking about (after all, it isn't Bonfire Night any time soon...) but I just kept quiet and wrote it down, but wondered what it was all about. And now I know!

    Thanks, Mind Tools.

    Caro

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