When straw beats stone

Nothing is certain, now let’s build on that.

It can be paralysing, during the early stages of developing a product or service, if you find yourself with inter-dependant unknowns. E.g. The feature-set is dependent on partners, but the partners’ interest is dependant on the feature-set. Time spent working on one side feels wasteful without confirmation of the other.

A great way to avoid going in circles is to adopt the ‘straw man’ approach. You quickly create a complete model of how things could work whilst acknowledging that it will almost certainly change in many ways. Quick is important, to minimise waste – and impermanence bypasses disagreement.

This duality (tangible + temporary) is empowering. The former gives the team and partners something palpable to discuss quickly, exposing potential issues. The latter keeps all parties relaxed. You can even create several versions of these straw man scenarios to confront different eventualities. It’s a simple idea. Obvious in hindsight, but incredibly useful.

It turns out we may have been misusing the phrase ‘straw man’.
The straw man fallacy is when one person misrepresents another person’s view and then tears the false representation apart. In this context, the straw man is a dangerous phantom; the result of one person’s wrecklessness, and a smackdown that lacks credibility or usefulness. Thinking more about straw men, I’m reminded of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, who didn’t have a brain. If you’re made of straw, it would seem that popular mythology will call you out as lacking in intelligence and purpose. And if you’re part of a piglet trio, you’ll note that building your house out of straw is a pretty bad move too.

I can’t help that all these ill feelings toward straw are the result of an outdated belief system, where certainty, confidence and solidity are seen as strength and anything short as weakness. Heroes used to be those that offered clarity amidst the chaos, but that idealism is dying. A new respect is rising for those driven enough to ‘fail quickly’, roll with the punches and emerge victorious after a sweaty wriggle in the muck.

These are characteristics of the new entrepreneur and they run through the veins of the Lean movement. In the opening pages of Running Lean, author Ash Maurya suggests turning your Plan A (instinctive, initial idea) into a one-page business model in 20 minutes flat, and to start testing its contents straight away. It’s a nice example of the straw man at play. And in my mind, it’s a product-based extension of what Clay Shirky framed for us in Here Comes Everybody: that we’ve moved from an edit-then-publish world, to a publish-then-edit one. Make something quickly and start hammering it against a little reality. This is where straw can be the best material you have.

For the record, the Scarecrow turned out to be the “wisest man in all of Oz”, so perhaps an unassuming form can be an advantage. A small budget and a rough exterior can help ideas to develop quietly and quickly, offered a chance to breathe before they’re ‘solid’ enough to appear a threat to people capable of squashing them. If you’re scared of starting, or are worried about the implications of cementing an idea (or having others believe it’s cemented), then you should try the straw man approach. It’s so simple it shouldn’t really need a blog post. So why don’t more people do it?

Isaac just sent me this relevant – and excellent – story about shitty first ideas. Worth a read :)

leave a comment