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

If you build something out of straw what do you expect to happen to it in the long run?

You expect it to collapse or be blown away!

A straw man proposal similarly lacks solid foundation, and it too may be blown away under scrutiny.

So is a straw man proposal to be avoided?

Not necessarily. A "straw man" can be very useful, as long as people know that what stands before them is indeed a straw man. When you begin a project or start looking into a problem, you often have incomplete information to work with. So you can spend time gathering facts and data until you are ready to build a really strong argument or plan, or, you can get going straight away and jump in with a not-so-complete solution, with the intention of finding a much better one, as you learn more and more.

That's the premise behind building a straw man – creating a first draft for criticism and testing, and then using the feedback you receive 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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