Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tools

There's an adage that goes, "If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail."

It's an adage that you see played out all the time. You learn a certain system, say Mac OS or Windows. Then you use it exclusively no matter what you're trying to accomplish, no matter which one is the best match for the task at hand.

It's an adage played out all the time. It's a phenomenon easily identified... in others.

Yup, the "hey, you're trying to hammer a screw" phenomenon can be pretty tough to see in yourself.

Picking the right tool for the job takes more than having access to it. You have to know all the tools in the kit, their strengths and weakness, and how they behave in different situations.You have to know how to use them and how not to use them. Picking the best tool, requires an understanding of those that are less than best.

To make things more challenging, the notion of tools is multidimensional. The best tool for a job may not appear among the tools designed for that job. For example, when email started getting popular, it was easy to see the Internet would displace the first class letter; email and paper mail reasonably fell into the same toolkit. However, few realized that, as people began to use the Internet communicate in richer and more meaningful ways, the Internet would take a big cut out of the airline industry.

Basically, no one saw the laptop computer with a WiFi card as an alternative to the airplane. Of course, that might have been because there were no laptop computers nor WiFi cards. To make matters even more challenging, there's the time dimension. Even if you know all the good tools designed for the task at hand and you know all the good tools not designed for the task at hand, you probably also want to know about the tools that don't yet exist. This is specially important when the task at hand may take a long time to complete.

The best hockey players don't chase the puck, they go where the puck is going to be. Similarly the best problem solvers design solutions that take into account the tools that will exist. The more you lead the problem, the trickier it gets; however, if you do it well, you end up with a solution that can work effectively for a long time.

It's usually at the end of technology cycles that the new tools become difficult to identify. New technologies are often clunky and buggy; it's easy to dismiss them as half-baked or never-will-be-baked. Executives at AT&T dismissed the Internet as something that would never have a significant impact on the price of telephone calls because early voice-over-Internet applications had poor quality and were unreliable. Compared to the best sailing ships, the first steam-powered ships  were slow and expensive to operate. Even when the new tool exists, it can be difficult to imagine it displacing the ones you already know and love.

Perhaps the toughest tools to identify and learn to use are the soft ones. They're not hammers and screwdrivers. They're not laptops and cellphones. They're not Word and Excel. They're processes and methods you use to regulate and manage you.

For example, you probably have tools you use to motivate yourself. Among the tools in the kit are reward, vision, excitement, fear, guilt and shame (to name a few.) You likely use a combination of them; you likely aren't all that aware of which ones you use. Nonetheless, each is a tool that may or may not be the best one for the job.

Each of us uses tools to motivate, tools to regulate, tools encourage and tools to limit. If you ever find yourself struggling with any of the above tasks, then perhaps you've been trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver (so to speak.)

What's in your tool kit?

Happy Thursday,
Teflon

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