Wednesday, July 7, 2010

To a Carpenter with a Hammer, Every Problem Looks Like a Nail

You’re part of a team working on a vexing problem. Every time you believe you’re starting to get some traction on the problem, one of your teammates drags the team away saying he has the solution, and it involves using something in his specialty area. So everyone stops what they’re doing and goes to his meeting so he can describe his breakthrough. Only it’s not a breakthrough. It’s a rehash of the same thing, or a slightly different variant, of what he has been diverting everyone to every step along the way. “You’ve got to stop now to see this wonderful approach I recently learned at a seminar I attended.”  Or, “I just found a new way to apply this breakthrough approach I just read about.”  Or, “A specialist I know in another company just published an article that I think can solve our problem.” Like a broken record, he halts real progress over and over again with diversions to his area of expertise that, while well-intentioned, simply don’t apply to the problem at hand.


There is an old saying,“To a carpenter with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Your teammate is that “carpenter”, and every problem he sees is a “nail” that he believes can best be solved using his “hammer”. In extreme cases, they do all they can to prevent reasoned discussion and collaborative solutions (often not intentionally, believe it or not). They insist that their way is the only acceptable way to reach “the” solution.




Single-mindedness of purpose can be a good thing when it leads to an intense focus on what needs to get done at a specific point in time; for example after an informed decision has been reached on what needs to be done and how it will be done. But it can be a very bad thing when it is the only focus all of the time. There is a time to put your head down and focus all of your energy towards a short-term critical task at hand. But there is a time to lift your head and open your eyes, ears, and mind to the broader issues and other approaches that can provide a broader context and alternate solutions (see also Looking Down versus Looking Up).


Everyone on a team wants to contribute, and clearly every team member brings their own perspectives on how to most effectively contribute (see also The Sky Is Falling!). Such differing perspectives can be great in finding and implementing the best solution, as long as one of those perspectives (or more realistically one of the people espousing those perspectives) doesn’t try to dominate other perspectives and other approaches. Shutting out all but one perspective can be the antithesis of effective problem solving.


What are some examples of a “carpenter” “hammering” on his or her “nails”?


A recent example for me is a person who is a process expert (their “hammer”) who sees all problems as process problems (“nails”) that can be solved by putting better processes in place. This person’s initial approach was reasonable; to do an analysis of the issues, do a Pareto analysis to see which issues were most prevalent, and then attack the issues in order of prevalence to eliminate the most common sources of issues first and then move on to the next most common, etc. The problem was that this person insisted on applying new (and more time-consuming) process approaches to do more and more analysis at every step of the way, getting tied up in these new process approaches to the issues rather than attacking the issues themselves. Consequently simple approaches to address the low-hanging fruit in fixing the issues were put aside for more and more process analysis. The result was analysis paralysis when simply working to address the most common root causes of the issues would more effectively address the problems. This can be an annoyance at a company where such a person is one of a number of process subject matter experts, but it can be deadly when this is the only such subject matter expert, and who is regarded by senior management as the person to define company-wide processes.


At another company one of the executives seemed to have a preference for using external resources (their “hammer”) to solve problems or take on new projects (“nails”). There seemed to be a bias against using internal resources, despite the fact that those internal resources had developed products that constituted virtually all of the revenues for this fast growing company. This was also despite the fact that little real vetting of the external resources was done and that the internal resources had to spend substantial time getting the external resources up to speed, delaying internal projects currently underway. Still, every time a new project was proposed this person’s “solution” was to farm it out to someone outside of the company. The result was often inferior products released far later than desired, and often at higher than desired costs.


I’m sure every one of us has similar examples where a single-mindedness of approach has lead to more problems rather than to effective solutions.


So what can you do when you see a single-mindedness of approach taking over a team effort to solve a pressing problem?


First, talk with other members of your team to see if they agree that this person is derailing effective progress with a concentration on one area that doesn’t seem to really address the goal of the team. If the other team members disagree, then find out why they disagree and reassess your view to see if their viewpoints make sense to you, and if they do, then move on with the team towards a hopefully good and effective solution to the problem.


If they agree with you, then next talk directly to the person you feel is moving the team in the wrong direction (the “carpenter”) with the wrong solutions in the wrong timeframe and ask him/her to take a moment to think about whether the problem isn’t what they really think.


Discuss with him/her other approaches that may be better, cheaper, or faster. See if you can get him/her to take a broader view and consider other perspectives. If he/she agrees, the broader approaches can be considered.

If your teammates agree with you, and the “carpenter” doesn’t, then talk with the team leader to point out where you and others see things going astray. Ask the team leader to reign in the person moving things in what you and others see as the wrong direction. If the team leader concurs with your assessment, then that should move the team leader to put some corrective action in place. If that happens, then all is well. If it doesn’t, then further discussions with the team leader are in order. If the team leader doesn’t concur with your assessment, then you have some decisions to make.


Do you go along to get along? Do you raise this issue publicly at a team meeting to seek support from other team members? Do you escalate above the team leader? Do you ask to be removed from the team? There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on the seriousness of the problem, the level of agreement or disagreement among the team, and many other factors. But some action to get things on track is needed.


Remember, “carpenter” or not, every “problem” is not a “nail”!

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