The ‘straw man’ is a useful strategy to help drive projects.
This may sound like a controversial statement. If you’re familiar with the straw man in the Wizard of Oz, you know that he was a brainless. Many people use the term straw man as an analogy when referring to a person they consider half-witted. When it comes to project management, the straw man takes on a whole new meaning.
What is a straw man?
When starting out on a project or finding the solution to a problem, the end result is often unclear. This is because you are often working with incomplete information. Projects can stall or completely fail to start at this point.
The Harvard Business Review carried out a study on why many employees withhold new ideas. The 2007 study identified several reasons why employees are afraid of putting new ideas on the table. Key amongst this was the fear of tabling untested assumptions.
This is where the straw man concept comes in. Techopedia.com defines a straw man as a rough proposal that is created for testing and criticism in software development. The straw man proposal is a launching pad for experimentation as well as research. This rough draft proposal is prepared to initialize discussions amongst team members and draw feedback in order to develop a better and more refined proposal.
The term ‘straw man’ is believed to have originated from a time when politicians used dressed-up straw dummies on stage when giving a big speech. The crowd could throw eggs or tomatoes at the dummies if they disliked the policies the leader had come up with. Politicians could use this as a gauge of how welcome their speech was to the crowd.
The benefits of using the straw man
In project management, the straw man proposal allows you to start with a simple idea. Since it is a rough draft, no one is heavily invested in the proposal at the time it is put before the team. The team can therefore knock it around mercilessly and therefore better refine it.
Many will argue that the straw man doesn’t reflect reality and is therefore not beneficial to the organization. However, this is the beauty of the whole concept. The straw man can help you avoid the following problems on a project:
- Not getting started or stalling
Projects can fail to start or stall when there isn’t enough information available. Sometimes it is better to drive ahead and try to find a solution rather than wait for information that may not be forthcoming any time soon and therefore delay or halt the project completely. The straw man allows the team to build up to a solution that works by beginning with a blank slate. It gives the team the opportunity to consider different options.
- Exacerbating emotional investment
Project members who have worked for hours to compile data, process it and come up with a project outline are emotionally invested in their proposals. This investment will make them defensive over their proposals even when they are wrong.
The straw man will help you avoid this. The proposal is presented to the team as a rough idea. No one is heavily invested in it at this point in time. The team can therefore freely point out weaknesses, blind spots and strengths of the idea. You’ll completely avoid the closed and defensive attitude at this point.
The real benefits of using a straw man include:
- Providing your team something tangible to consider and kick around. This can be especially beneficial when a project threatens to stall or stop due to lack of information. The straw man proposal will save a lot of time.
- Providing your team with the opportunity to uncover the strengths and the flaws of ideas that have been put on the table. Everyone can remain objective when an idea is still in its infancy and has yet to be invested into. No one feels attacked.
- Getting the team moving in the same direction or revealing when team members are not on the same page. The direction the team is headed will become more apparent as ideas are bounced around and the proposal is refined. You will otherwise risk having different people working on different pieces of the whole. This results in differing perceptions and unstated or differing assumptions.
How to effectively use a straw man proposal
One of the biggest risks of using a straw man is that you may end up jumping to conclusions. Considering that 68% of companies experience project failure due to a poor approach to business analysis, it is important for your team to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion. You should therefore constantly remind the team that the straw man doesn’t represent the complete idea. The team should understand that it is meant as a tool for brainstorming and discussions.
The team should be reminded that they are allowed to poke holes in the straw man and should not use it to draw final conclusions. With this in mind, your team can effectively use the straw man as a guide that will lead them to a better conclusion.
There are several ways to implement the straw man. The following steps are a rough guide to follow:
- Make a draft proposal
This can be done by one or two members of the team. The proposal doesn’t have to be very detailed. You should however not skimp on its preparation. It should present the idea clearly.
When the straw man copy is ready, it should be presented to the team and left open for discussion and suggestions. Ensure that the whole team is clear on the fact that this idea is a work in progress and that their input would be beneficial in helping to perfect it. Set a timeline to ensure that this process is not open ended.
- Analysis of input
Allow for free discussions on the proposal. Allow for constructive criticism even if the discussion doesn’t favor the proposal. Allow the team to point out strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. When the team has completed the discussion, analyze the comments and suggestions presented.
- Refine the proposal
The straw man should then be refined in line with the comments and suggestions of the team. Having completed the second draft proposal, it should be presented to the team for dissection.
The process of proposal development and dissection is repeated until the team is able to come up with a solution that is viable. In order to ensure that the conclusions drawn by your team are valid, be sure to rely on other tools of testing such as impact analysis. This will allow you to determine the consequences of the actions suggested in the proposal and evaluate their weak points to create a more refined plan.
Image: Clyde Robinson