Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When the tool you most compelling lack is a hammer, everything can begin to look like nails

Posted in business and convergent technologies, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on December 11, 2016

There is an old saying to the effect that “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like nails.” And the basic idea is that we are all at risk of developing blinders to what is possible, from the limitations of our immediately at-hand resources. That is a valid point, and that is probably why people still remember and use adages and sayings like this one. But resource limitations are more complex than this saying would suggest, at least when taken on its own and at face value. That, I expect, is why this is called an old saying.

I offer this posting as a very brief note in which I reexamine what this old saying addresses, but from a different angle, a different direction than it does. So I address and consider a new saying alternative, which I express as “when the tool you most compelling lack is a hammer, everything can begin to look like nails.” And I would argue that both are valid and equally so when tested experientially. Both resource paucity and ready resource access and plenty carry potential for shaping our perceptions of what we can do and should, and how. And both can lead to skewed perceptions and planning and poorly prioritized execution.

What I am proposing here is a more open-ended search for and analysis of what is needed, and of what can and should be done, and according to what priorities. And what I am proposing there is an opening up to the possibilities of innovation, and even of disruptively novel innovation – where the tools that we would automatically think of as having or not, might or might not even apply.

Both of these sayings, both of these perhaps reasonable sounding adages are tightly limited and limiting; both assume that our thinking and planning are constrained by a simple understanding of what routine-use tools we do and do not have immediately available.

Innovation can be all about what we produce that is new, and in marketable products or services, and in improving our basic business processes. But real innovation never begins with an inventory of what tools are and are not going to be available.

I initially began planning out this posting with a thought of starting it with a subtitle, such as “finding more effective work-arounds and alternatives in the face of resource limitations and change.” But that misses the point. Innovation – real innovation begins with an imaginative idea, and the how of developing it into realized product or service or business process only comes next. Start out by imagining what you wish to develop and achieve, and in as clear and detailed a manner as possible. Then begin asking the how and with what questions, as you bring it into a more specifically practical, doable focus. And then think in terms of your tools and other resources that you have, that you can acquire, or that you can find alternatives to, in order to accomplish this.

The more traditional saying that I cite here and my made-up alternative to it both seek to reverse the essential order of that, short circuiting any realizable potential for innovation in the process.

I offer this as a brief thought piece and musing. You can find more specifically focused, related material at Business Strategy and Operations and its Page 2, Page 3 and Page 4continuations, and also see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and its Page 2 continuation.

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