Avoiding the Straw Man Fallacy

Unless you have been forcibly locked in a doomsday bunker, you have no doubt seen the escalating debates between presidential candidates in the media.  And, though it is not yet fall, one familiar sight is making a frequent appearance.

The Straw Man

In critical thinking parlance, the Straw Man Fallacy is one where a person (in hopes of refuting the opposing point of view) exaggerates the negative aspects of his adversary’s claims, distorting their position and making it easy to win the argument. While this technique is quite effective at boosting one’s own ego, it is a terrible way to make a logical argument.

Sadly, such logical fallacies don’t just exist in the political landscape.  Television is littered with examples of companies trying to distort the perceptions of market leaders, only to fall flat.  Consider RIM’s launch of its Playbook touch-screen device.  The slogan “Amateur hour is over” tried in vain to discredit other products without specifically touting what problems the Playbook was fixing. Samsung tried the same strategy when it rolled out its Galaxy phones by exaggerating the “sheep mentality” of Apple customers (who they were trying to woo) instead of focusing on the benefits of its own product.  Both companies lost market share before trying a different tact.  Yes, the pathway to self-destruction is littered with straw.

Whether you are positioning yourself against an external competitor, or comparing the disparate ideas of different department leaders within the organization, it’s best to avoid the Straw Man tactic and focus instead on sound critical thinking.  Here are some strategies to help.

  1. Acknowledge Drawbacks – No plan, idea or product is perfect. If you only focus on the benefits of your own position without acknowledging and speaking about the drawbacks, you will appear out-of-touch and invite skepticism.  Be truthful about the drawbacks, while demonstrating how they might be overcome.
  2. Acknowledge Benefits – When examining the opposing point of view, there is no harm in validating the benefits. This demonstrates open-mindedness and encourages the same behavior in others.  Then, people will be more likely to hear how your position includes the same plusses, but adds a few more benefits. (If that’s the truth ;-))
  3. Integrate – True innovation happens when we come up with a third alternative (or fourth… or fifth) that integrates the positives of a variety of positions, and overcomes most negatives. Such thinking requires effort and persistence, but the results are well worth it.

At Action Management Associates, we have been helping clients pave a pathway to success thorough innovation and solid critical thinking.  If you are looking to improve your organization’s ability to tackle tough problems and avoid creating straw men of your own, give us a call at +1-800-386-5611.  For our Asia Pacific office in Singapore, call +65-6789-0977.  We’d love to help!


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