The Strawman: When a Wrong Makes a Right
Sometimes, the easiest way to find out what someone really wants is to show them what they don’t want.
The strawman approach is frequently used by business analysts – sometimes knowingly, and sometimes not. Actively inviting stakeholders to engage with and criticize an inaccurate reflection of requirements can provide insights that greatly speed up the requirements elicitation process. However, it can also be a risky approach.
This article describes that strawman approach, its potential pitfalls, and tips for using the approach to support productive requirements elicitation.
What is the Strawman Approach?
You may have heard of a strawman argument – an argument that distorts an opposing stance to make it easier to attack .
In business analysis, a strawman can be created by presenting knowingly incorrect, incomplete or distorted requirements to stakeholders in order to provoke a response. This is usually done in the form of a model or prototype solution, providing a visual representation that stakeholders can engage with and refute. The idea is that the way stakeholders respond to the inaccurate strawman will inform more complete, coherent and representative stakeholder requirements.
Stakeholders often find it difficult to articulate their requirements. They can be vague when it comes to specifying their wants (I want a bright color…), yet very specific when it comes to specifying what they don’t want (…but not pink!) This is because people often find it easier to specify their wants and needs in opposition to something. In such cases, presenting an inaccurate or incomplete model/prototype representation of requirements as a strawman can provoke a strong response from stakeholders, creating a better understanding of what they don’t want, and providing a starting point for conversations about what they do want.
The Pitfalls of the Strawman Approach
While the strawman approach can be a powerful requirements elicitation technique, the approach should be used with caution. Some of the potential pitfalls associated with using a strawman include:
- Impact on your credibility: When done right, presenting a strawman to stakeholders can make a business analyst appear open, co-operative, and responsive to stakeholder needs. However, presenting something that is clearly wrong can also impact a business analysts’ credibility, leading some stakeholders to question the analyst’s abilities.
- The strawman becomes the answer: The point of the strawman is that it isn’t accurate! You want stakeholders to refute it and provide information that will allow you to change and/or improve it. However, in cases where stakeholders really do not know what they want, they may not challenge the strawman. This could lead to the strawman (either in part or whole) becoming the answer.
- The business analyst can feel exposed: Presenting a strawman is not an easy thing to do. It takes a degree of professional courage to produce a piece of work and present it, only to have it criticized – even if that was the intention.
- Some stakeholders are too nice: Some people find criticism difficult and may be unwilling to say what they really think about a strawman, particularly when they are being asked to criticize it in a group setting.
Tips for using the Strawman Approach
The following are a few tips to consider when using a strawman to elicit requirements:
- Do you research. Make the ‘strawman’ as accurate as possible. Differentiate between elements of the strawman that are based on known, more accurate requirements, and those that are ‘best guesses.’
- Know your stakeholders. Think about how your stakeholders might react to the strawman. Think about how you present the strawman to different stakeholder groups. Consider presenting the strawman to ‘friendly’ stakeholders 1-on-1 to get feedback to improve it, prior to exposing it to more influential stakeholders and/or a larger group.
- Acknowledge it is a strawman. Sometimes acknowledging what you are presenting is a ‘strawman’ will give stakeholders the permission they need to constructively criticize it.
- Don’t rely on it. The strawman approach should not be used as a primary requirements elicitation approach, but rather a tool that may be deployed to elicit those more subjective requirements, engage a particular stakeholder group, or as a check for validating what you know and what you don’t.
- Clearly label your strawmen. Once in the wild, the strawman can obtain a life of its own, being reproduced and/or discussed in unintended places. Therefore, it is important to clearly label, store and/or otherwise indicate the strawman is a draft, prototype or experiment.
- Don’t take is personally. Remember, the stakeholders are reacting to and criticizing what is presented to them – not you personally!