Avoiding the Agile Straw Man

Organisational Agility May 24, 2021

In arguing the case for agile approaches and the need for an agile mindset, we often compare the old world (bad) in relation to the problems encountered and the solution of an agile mindset (good). I've written about the dangers of a 'mindset' perspective here. This post contains an example of how I have changed my presentation of agility based on avoiding the straw man argument and creating a false dichotomy.

What is a Straw Man?

Wikipedia describes a straw man argument as follows:

A straw man is a form of argument and an informal fallacy of having the impression of refuting an argument, whereas the real subject of the argument was not addressed or refuted, but instead replaced with a false one. The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent's proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., "stand up a straw man") and the subsequent refutation of that false argument ("knock down a straw man") instead of the opponent's proposition.

In agile circles we like to create a view of the past that can then be used to argue the case for agility. This is a dangerous position to take as it does not argue against the pros of approaches used in past, but a limited subset of the things that can go wrong. We are not arguing against the benefits of approaches of the past, which may or may not exist, but our own constructed argument that supports our case - a straw man argument.

It is also at risk of assuming that the two perspectives represent the complete set of options and are mutually exclusive - neither of which is really the case in large complex organisations. We are at risk of presenting a false dichotomy.

Where we were

We have to compare a new approach to an older one in order to understand it - there's nothing wrong with that. However, I have becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my presentation of the 'agile vs waterfall' argument that I've been using in training courses and conversations. It had got to the point that I was excluding it or, even more confusingly for attendees, arguing against my own content in training courses!

The narrative was along the lines of this table below:

This sets up the whole of traditional thinking as something that needs replacing. Who wouldn't want the items on the right, rather than those on the left?

Not only is this a misrepresentation of 'traditional thinking' but it also risks undermining the argument for agile approaches for those that see it as such and will certainly not provide a strong argument to those with a cynical view of what we present.

An alternative comparison

Rather than setting up a good-bad dichotomy, which is a false dichotomy as mentioned above, we should compare them in relation to the benefits that they both bring. This then allows for sensible discussion around the context of the challenges we face and permits a more sensible and informed decision making process.

The view I now present is more like the following table, also avoiding the 'a' word:

Hopefully this help us to avoid presenting a false dichotomy based on a straw man argument and helps people to make informed decisions about how they approach challenges and organisational tensions that often drive their success.


John Cumming

I am a Scrum Alliance CTC with BAE based in the UK. I hope to inspire people to develop themselves, their teams and their organisations through curiosity, collaboration and creativity.

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