Hail the straw man

There is an English idiom: “There are many ways to skin a cat”. Unpleasant an image though that is [even if I am not a great feline fan], the meaning is clear: and problem/challenge may be addressed in numerous ways, all of which may lead to a satisfactory solution. Of course, in real life, we all face problems/challenges on a daily basis, all of which need to be approached in unique ways. But recognizing that there is rarely one, single, “right” way is important.

For me, a common challenge is organizing an activity, which I am conducting in collaboration with a number of colleagues. These are all smart people, who have much to contribute, but they are often scattered across several locations, in different countries and multiple time zones. This needs some careful handling …

Collaborative working needs the right mindset to be successful. Starting with the premise that all the parties involved have the same goal, have broadly mutual trust and are not in competition with one another, it should be easy, but there are two very clearly different modes of operation, each favored by different people.

For many, “collaboration” means “meetings” – whether face to face or virtual. So, the solution to a problem or development of a project is approached by having a meeting [or, more likely, a series of meetings] of the stakeholders. The attraction of this approach is that all the participants can share ideas freely and solutions will arise. In practice, this approach has problems:

  1. The time used is excessive. A one hour meeting of 10 people uses 10 man-hours of effort. Unless all 10 are heart and soul committed to the project, that is wasteful. Some people may indeed be working full time on the project, but others may just want an overview of what is happening.
  2. There is the “next meeting” effect. Issues are often put off until the next meeting for fear that the current one will be extended beyond its time slot.
  3. Participants’ ability to plan their work is severely hampered by the necessity to comply with the arbitrary timing of meetings.
  4. The loudest or most eloquent participants in meetings tend to get their own way.
  5. If participants are spread across a lot of time zones, a series of meetings can stretch over a very long period.
  6. In different cultures, the idea of what a meeting is for varies. So, in an international context, there is a lot of scope for misunderstanding.

Another approach is to use a “straw man”. The idea is simple. The “owner” or leader of the project spends time outlining their detailed plans in writing and distributes it to all the stakeholders. This has various advantages:

  1. Those who are deeply involved spend time to respond with their comments, proposals and suggestions.
  2. Those who just need to know the status can take a quick glance at communications when it suits them.
  3. Everyone spends the right amount of time on the project [proportional to their depth of involvement] and gets to make their contribution at a time that suits them.
  4. Because the state of the project always looks somewhat “finished”, there is less temptation to tinker with details.

It is likely that email is used for communication, but other means of sharing are equally possible. Also, one-to-one conversations may still be useful.

The two approaches may be broadly thought of as being top-down and bottom-up, if that perspective helps.

As you can probably guess, I tend to favor the second approach. But I have learned a key lesson: if you are the project owner, you must be prepared for your straw man to be pushed over, set on fire and the embers stamped on by the other participants.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2012/03/08/hail-the-straw-man/