Steelman Arguments in Startups: A Guide for Product Leaders
Why making your point — by making someone else’s — is a surefire shortcut to better decision-making & collaboration
Steelman arguments? In the dynamic and fast-paced environment of startups, product leaders play a crucial role in driving innovation and steering the company toward success. To ensure the team’s alignment and productivity, effective communication, collaboration, and decision-making are essential for senior product managers, directors, and VPs.
One powerful tool to foster a constructive and open-minded culture is the concept of “steel manning.” But what is it, and how can it help?
What Are Steelman Arguments?
Steelmanning is all about creating the strongest version of an argument or perspective before engaging with it. Typically, this means reconstructing an opposing viewpoint in the most favorable light, refining or clarifying specific points, and then critically discussing it.
This contrasts with “straw-manning,” which involves misrepresenting or oversimplifying an argument to more easily attack or refute it.
Why Steelmanning Matters in Startups
In startups, where the decision-making process is often less formal, and teams are empowered to act autonomously, steelmanning can play a meaningful role in fostering effective collaboration and preventing groupthink.
- Intellectual Honesty: By focusing on (and proposing) the strongest aspects of an opposing viewpoint, we challenge our own biases and assumptions, promoting well-informed decision-making.
- Groupthink Prevention: The lack of rigorous processes in startups can potentially increase the risk of groupthink. Steelman arguments encourage open and diverse perspectives, ensuring that decisions are based on the available information — not just how well prepared each side is.
- Empathy: Developing the opposing argument as if it were your own puts you in someone else’s shoes and inherently improves your understanding of their point of view. This helps build a shared understanding of the situation and builds bonds and (hopefully) respect between colleagues. In part fostering a more inclusive and supportive work environment.
- Innovation: By rigorously exploring unpopular ideas, steel-manning can stimulate creativity and unexpected ideas that can be applied to the more popular ideas and improve them before putting them in action.
- Conflict Resolution: Steelmanning can help resolve conflicts more effectively by encouraging team members to genuinely understand and address the concerns of their colleagues.
Companies such as Netflix even go so far as to organize public debates of ideas between leaders where the person is required to exclusively argue for the opposing view. While you might want to get in some practice first, steelmanning is far from uncommon.
How to Apply Steelman Arguments in Startup Leadership
Ready to give steelman arguments a try? Here’s how to incorporate it into your leadership approach:
- Reflect & Enhance: During meetings and discussions, pay close attention to your colleagues’ viewpoints, ensuring you understand their perspectives before responding. Try explaining their view back to them while consciously improving their argument with relevant evidence or context.
- Clarify & Enhance: Ask questions and seek clarification when necessary to accurately capture the essence of a colleague’s position. Don’t be afraid to ask questions where the answer will improve their argument, even if you inherently see things differently.
- Acknowledge & Request: Acknowledge their perspective using one of the above tactics, then suggest they try to steelman the opposing argument. You don’t have to label it as such “Purely hypothetically, how might you argue that <xyz> is actually the better alternative?”
As a product leader in a startup, embracing steelman arguments can lead you to better decisions and a more collaborative environment. It can also be enjoyable with the right approach. By fostering a culture of open-mindedness, empathy, and intellectual rigor, you pave the way for greater wisdom and stronger connections within your organization.
So, give it a shot — you might be surprised at the results!