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Tuesday, 08 September 2015 20:44

Hammers and nails: how professional bias hinders problem solving

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The librarians with a hammer

A couple of years ago I was asked to speak at a one day conference for librarians. After speaking I stayed on and helped with some breakout workshops. It was not an audience I was used to working with. I liked that. I am always interested in working with people I don’t normally engage with. I find I often learn to see things from different angles. Overall, I had a very good day and I did learn some new things. But most of all it reinforced a lesson about hammers and nails.


The lesson came about like this … in the afternoon of this conference I worked with one breakout group on handling change in libraries. Librarians are having to deal with fundamental technology change that is altering the concept of books and libraries, as well as significant social change in attitudes towards libraries. The interesting thing was the response to the question “what do we need to do to better prepare for and handle future change”. The resounding answer was along the lines: “we need to do an investigation and find out what research on change is available”.

For a while I was stumped by this answer. I’ve always respected research, but that the main answer to what appears to be a risk of impending doom is to do some research seemed a little odd to me.

And then I thought a bit more and I understood. Of course this was the answer! This was a group of librarians, and there skill is in areas like understanding and investigating written resources, cataloguing and researching documents and finding references. Give this group a problem – and the answer was to be found in understanding what written texts are available, researching the documents and finding the best references.

Crazy? Unusual?

Those were both my first thoughts. But then I realised that this was just a clear example of the old adage of hammers and nails. There are various versions of this maxim. The one I am most familiar with is “give a man a hammer and he will see everything as a nail”. We see things through what we are familiar with, and we see the solutions to problems in the tools we are most familiar with. The librarians were acting in the same way as exactly as most of us do most of the time. 

Our own hammers

The truth is that we all have our own hammers and see many of the situations we deal with as a set of nails that our hammer, or one very like it, is just suited to hammering down. And before you think – oh no, not me, just ask yourself the following questions. How many times have you been in a discussion with a friend or loved one about some problem and found yourself thinking how your professional skill could help solve this? How many times do you think, would not the world be better if there were more people with your skill, or if people with your professional discipline were in charge? If you think this way occasionally, you may be right. If you find that you are thinking this way a lot of the time, I suspect you are guilty of seeing the world through your hammer.

As I wrote in my last article: “… I have seen this being true so many times at work: strategists seeing everything as requiring a strategy, project managers thinking everything is a project, HR considering everything as a talent problem, facilitators trying to facilitate in every situation, and coaches trying to resolve ever issue with coaching.” The truth is not everything is either a strategy, project, talent, facilitating, or coaching issue.

The trouble with seeing everything from the viewpoint of our hammer is not that there is anything wrong with the hammer. The hammer is usually fine. The problem is that we are misdiagnosing the nails. We are not listening properly, not observing sufficiently and only seeing the information that confirms it is a nail – and not the data which might indicate it is in fact a screw. This is a mistake many experts make time and again.

The view from a professional discipline

Let me give an example close to home for me. I have seen this in one of my core professional disciplines – project management.

The last few years have been awash with talk of Agile. Agile has different ways of getting things done from traditional project management. It has brought about some interesting and powerful delivery concepts into practice. It is maturing into a discipline well beyond its origins in software development. What Agile did brilliantly was not so much change the way of delivery as change our viewpoint of the nail. Instead of seeing the problem as keeping scope fixed with rigid change control, Agile just accepts that change will happen. It works with change rather than trying to exclude it.

When Agile first arose many project managers neither accepted the reasons for its creation nor saw the benefits it could bring, (nor did they see the potential threat to traditional project management jobs). It did not look like our hammer, we were not interested in playing with it and we could see plenty of reasons why it was not suitable for our nails. 

Fortunately, many of us have learnt to adopt and adapt the lessons and tools from Agile. Perhaps not all of our nails look quite as we expected. But it took a bit of time and some burnt fingers to learn this lesson.

 The lessons to hammer home

 There are probably situations in which your hammer is just right for a certain sort of nail. And some of those situations will be ones in which your hammer is not normally used. One of the joys of bringing together teams of experts from different disciplines is a wonderful sort of problem solving and creative inter-disciplinary thinking that brings and combines old solutions successfully to resolve new problems. But one of the frustrations in life is people insistently using the wrong hammer for the wrong nails.

What can be done about this? I really don’t have a silver bullet, but I offer up a few thoughts:

  1. Learn to use you hammer really well, but accept the world is awash with things that are not nails.
  2. Offer up your hammer to new situations, but don’t assume you have seen every aspect of the nail you are about to hit. And when you try it learn about the nail, learn about the limitations of your hammer, and learn about what other tools are available.
  3. Listen and observe both to learn from others about improving your hammer, but also to understand whether the problem you are looking at is truly nail shaped or is in fact something completely different.
  4. Try to keep a touch of modesty and open mindedness to other disciplines. One day you may be facing the sort of scale of challenge and threat that librarians have had to deal with. The hammer you have may be exactly the wrong tool to deal with it.
Read 5368 times Last modified on Tuesday, 08 September 2015 20:49
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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