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Unsticking Bottlenecks with a Straw-Man

Often the trick to getting started is to just get started.

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Have you ever been involved in a project or particular decision-making process that seems to be going nowhere fast?

Perhaps the team is asking for more information before arriving at a plan of action. Yet the information always seems on the horizon or those that need to get it keep getting pulled into other activities.

Maybe you are developing a product strategy and know there are a lot of variables that need to be contemplated before you can determine priorities?  

How to get a decision-making process unstuck?

In these situations I frequently rely on straw-man proposals.  Not the fictional positions that debaters argue against but an initial best guess decision on how to move important decisions forward.

Why?  It orders discussion, analysis, and debate into something more concrete that can best validated.

A straw-man (or straw-dog) proposal is a brainstormed simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion of its disadvantages and to provoke the generation of new and better proposals.

Straw-Man Product Strategy

While leveraging a straw-man is a great tool for unsticking all sorts of decision-making, I find it particularly useful for big picture decisions around Product Vision and Product Strategy.

Let’s look at how we frequently go about developing our Product Strategy.   

Hypothetically, many variable future paths can often be imagined toward shared Product Vision.  Realistically, you and your organization have a lot of data and intuition that guides you on limiting your options for next steps.  I find there is generally limited value in any process that takes weeks to months to develop a new draft Product Strategy.

Let’s say that your Vision is comprised of: A to Z.  The team and stakeholders are (mostly) on the same page.

Now you need to figure out your plan of action for getting there.   Do you tackle A first?  Maybe B?  Maybe a little A. B, and C together?  Maybe A-F but only for a limited customer segment?

You can prioritize using any methods you desire but you will eventually arrive at needing some subjective decision-making to start.

This is where the straw-man proposal comes in.  Draft a plan based on the data immediately available along with your deep product intuition supports.  Now, like a straw-man in a debate, you can focus efforts to validate your plan.

As pieces of it break under pressure, shift the plan around and adjust the key building blocks of your strategic objectives.  Iterate.  Share.  Let it see the light of day and a well-articulated plan will emerge through the gauntlet of incremental validation with organizational and market support.

Straw-man Proposals are a common tool

I know that the data-driven masses out there may be thinking you can’t just jump in without clearly defining the problem space and data to further analyze it.  Yet, the straw-man is the hypothesis led, scientific approach to discovery just hidden behind some tall dried up grass.

Further, as I have discussed previously in Developing Product Intuition, your hypothesis must start from somewhere.

This is exactly the approach that many popular “canvases” — like Business Model Canvas, Lean Canvas, Product Vision Board advise you to take as well.  

The idea is to put down what you know.  Don’t wait for all the perfect data to be in front of you.  It rarely ever is.  Once it is down and organizers, it becomes much more plain where deficiencies in thinking exist.  Where gapping holes in data exist?  Your biggest riskiest assumptions become evident.

By making a plan real, even if in a rough draft form, it suddenly becomes clear where you need to focus your attention to validate and advance it.

Beware of Anchoring

While there are many upsides to this approach, it certainly has one massive downside.  Broadly, I classify this as Anchoring.  Anchoring is a form of cognitive bias that can help us and hurt us.  For example, it is a great tool to use when negotiating.

Where it hurts us, is that both you and your stakeholders, may anchor on the initial draft of the Product Strategy.   For many, this is the exact reason they fear “roadmaps”, especially traditional feature based on a timeline that implies commitments.  Once you anchor around a particular decision or plan, it can sometimes be tough to undo.

This means that those leading any process that takes advantage of straw-man planning, must be in the mindset of draft and iterative improvement.  Further, this needs to be communicated and understood by all those engaged.

Conclusion

There are many strategies to get decision-making to happen faster with higher quality results.   I wrote about some of these in Better & Quicker Product Decisions.  Yet, as a very tactical tool, nothing seems to have clearer payback to me, time and time again, than the straw-man proposal.

If this is not natural to you, I strongly recommend giving it a try.  The next time you have a task to develop a recommendation of any sort, start with drafting what you believe it to be now.  Break it down into component parts that can then be researched, challenged, and validated.   Adjust and iterate a few times through.

Bottlenecks will be avoided.  Recommendations will be arrived at.  Decisions will be made.

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