Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Straw Man - An Important Tool for McKinsey-Style Problem Solving

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As a Firm, McKinsey if often engaged to work on a client's most challenging problems and McKinsey teams apply structured approaches to arrive at the best answers.  The "straw man" is an important tool for collaborative problem solving in all phases and at every level of a client engagement.  In this post I'll explain what a straw man is, why they're important, and caveats for their use...

What is a straw man?

In the context of problem solving, a "straw man" is a draft version of something that a team can debate, pick apart, and improve.

The use of a straw man is aligned with a couple of hallmarks of McKinsey problem solving.  The straw man is hypothesis-driven and it enables an iterative process for getting to increasingly better solutions.  Like anything else hypothesis-driven, the team should be prepared to discard it if necessary and resume work with a new straw man.

Disclaimer:  This "straw man" should not be confused with the political / debating version of a "straw man" in which your opponent takes Position "A", you find a similar but easily attacked Position "B", and argue against Position "B" (the "straw man") rather than your opponent's actual Position "A".

Common examples of where a straw man might be used

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but includes some examples of occasions when a straw man could be used to drive team problem solving:
  • Initial hypothesis for the overarching answer for a client engagement
  • Preliminary outline ("dot-dash") for a PowerPoint presentation (deck) storyline
  • Draft version of a PowerPoint page for making a particularly challenging point
  • Simple, working model in Excel that will eventually require more complex functionality

Why the straw man is important

In each of the examples above, it is much easier for a group of people to engage in discussion about a draft version of something rather than debating it in abstract.  The intent is never for the straw man to be the ultimate answer, instead, it is a tool to help get to the best answer.

The arguments and ideas that arise from the straw man provide valuable feedback that inform and improve the final answer.  Sometimes, the most successful straw man is the one that gets discarded but adds tremendous value by revealing where the answer is NOT.  Often, the best arguments against a straw man end up being or leading to the actual solution.

Consider how a collaborative problem-solving session can get derailed without a straw man.  Here are some ways group work can get derailed without a straw man...
  • Lack of common understanding of the problem and/or potential solutions results in miscommunication, frustration, and wasted effort
  • An infinite solution space can leave teams stuck in the brainstorming phase without making progress toward a solution
  • Without a straw man to test and discard, teams could end up wasting valuable time developing and refining solutions that are suboptimal or incorrect

Caveats for using a straw man

1.  Present it as a rough draft

It's critical that a straw man be presented in the proper context- that it is highly preliminary and meant to be picked apart.  Clients, in particular, can be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the hypothesis-driven approach.  That makes it especially important that the following be made clear:
  • The team is not assuming that they already know the answer - a common knock against consultants is that we act like we know everything.  A straw man taken out of context would reinforce that perception.
  • The straw man is preliminary, incomplete, and possibly incorrect - without the proper context, clients can anchor on the straw man and reference it, even after it has been discarded.  It can also hurt your credibility if the client has a culture that values always being right.
  • This is an iterative process and the intent is to discard or improve the straw man - clients might question why they're paying so much for something that's so clearly wrong

2.  Don't over-invest time and effort

Because the straw man is a rough draft, it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend a lot of time and effort fine-tuning and polishing it.  As long as it's developed enough to make its position clear and trigger the necessary thinking and debate, it's ready to go.

3.  Avoid pride of ownership

If you find yourself defending your straw man too vigorously, take a step back and make sure you're arguing for the hypothesis and not for your own work.  The straw man is meant to be attacked and picked apart - either so it can be discarded or so that it can be improved.  Don't take it personally.  And if you're on the other end of the process, remember to focus your critical eye on the straw man, not its creator.

Another important use of the straw man

In a previous post, I covered 3 ways to keep your McKinsey boss happy.  In a future post I'll go into greater detail on how a straw man can help you with a 4th way to keep your McKinsey boss happy - always go to him/her with solutions, not problems.  The straw man can be an important tool for doing this.


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