straw man

In general, a straw man is an object, document, person or argument that temporarily stands in for and is intended to be "knocked down" by something more substantial.

1. In software development, a straw man is a crude plan or document that serves as a starting point in the evolution of a project. A straw man is not expected to be the last word; it is refined until a final model or document is created that resolves all issues concerning the scope and nature of the project. In this context, a straw man can take the form of an outline, a set of charts, a presentation or a paper.

Here is an example of a straw man:

Suppose a company wants to provide wireless Internet access for the people in a certain region. The engineers outline the basic expectations and requirements for the system. Criteria might include the following: 

(1) Coverage must be provided for at least 30 kilometers in all directions from the server's antenna system 

(2) The minimum data speed for each subscriber must be 512 kbps downstream and 256 kbps upstream

(3) A backup power supply must provide at least 10 hours of continuous operation in the event of a general power failure 

(4) Downtime must not exceed 10 hours per month

(5) The cost per subscriber must be less than US$65 per month and a one-time cost of US$500 for hardware and installation

(6) Subscribers must not be required to sign a contract or make a subscription commitment

(7) The system must be capable of accommodating up to 500 subscribers at any given time without causing more than a 10-percent degradation of downstream or upstream connection speed for any subscriber

(8) No subscriber should have to install an antenna in excess of 10 meters in height above the rooftop to achieve rated connection speed. 

These eight points, listed and informally described, would comprise a straw man document for the project. The implementation plan could proceed from that starting point.

2.  In business, straw man is a debate strategy in which a point that can be easily refuted is attributed to the opposition. The objective of setting up a straw man in an argument is to "knock down" one argument and make it appear as if the opponent's entire position has been refuted.  

Here is an example of a straw man argument:

"Nicholas Carr is out of his mind if he thinks IT is a commodity and doesn't really matter. That's like saying oil doesn't matter. Oil is a commodity. Do any of you really think that oil doesn't matter? I don't think so. We've become just as reliant on on our IT infrastructure as we are on oil and if either one of them becomes suddenly unavailable, we're in big trouble. Information technology matters.  It matters a lot!"

Learn more:

Change often starts off with a straw man document as explained in "The Need for a CRM Vision to Drive the Process."

This was last updated in April 2010

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