Picking the Right Tool: Why Absolutes Aren’t the Path to Success

Posted on December 27, 2007
Filed Under Decision Making |

strapwrench.jpgHave you ever seen a strap wrench? It’s a useless tool most of the time. It can’t turn a screw, hammer a nail, solder, saw, measure, cut, sand, or do any of the things you spend most of the time doing on home improvement projects. But, on rare occasion, it is the perfect tool, because there are a few things it can do that no other tools can.

I have been thinking a lot about tools as I think about how to sum up the last five years of blogging at Businesspundit. Over the past 5 years, I have seen so many management tools and ideas written up in business related blogs, books, and periodicals, and the one thing they have in common is that they tend to focus on a single, or at most a handful, of ideas as the keys to success. Just visit your local bookstore and you can learn to become a One Minute Manager, or learn the Four Obsessions of An Extraordinary Executive. You can find the Only Negotiation Guide You Will Ever Need, or learn the Only Thing That Matters. You can learn how Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, how Trust Changes Everything, or how Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong. What is a businessperson to do? What are the key things that you have to know to be successful in business? What are the drivers of change, creating value, successful management, and great leaders? Well, I think they are a bit complicated. People who think you only need to master one thing to build a successful business should try to build a house with just a saw, or only a hammer.

The problem with business is that people want it to be simple, because simple is easy. Employees want to focus on just a few key things. Managers want to measure just a few key statistics. Executives want to boil decisions down to a few key variables. Everyone wants to cut through the noise and find the signal. Most of the time, that is a good thing. But the problem is that business is always changing. What worked in the past may not work in the future. Tools that helped you in 2007 may fail you in 2008. Both the signal and noise are always changing shape, making it an ongoing effort to distinguish between the two.

So what does this mean for you? It means that the best path to success is not to get stuck on one tool, or a handful of key ideas. It means you must constantly be learning new tools and evaluating them against the old ones. Add tools to your toolkit that are useful, discard tools that aren’t serving you well. Store tools that you may need for a special occasion. Most importantly though, learn when to use the right tool to get the job done.

That last statement reveals that business really is complex. While it might be easy to master six sigma, servant leadership, win-win thinking, customer focus, one minute managing, or whatever tool it is you are trying to use, it’s much much more difficult to understand when to use that tool properly.

My advice to a young entrepreneur or manager is to take the following steps to make sure you are successfully building the right toolkit for your future.

1. Read broadly across topics and types of content. Choose everything from blogs and major periodicals to books to journals to white papers. If something is interesting, investigate it further. If something seems dumb, don’t waste your time finishing it just for the sake of finishing.

2. Cycle your focus by occasionally halting your broad search for new ideas to spend a few months focusing on depth. Dig in deeper and learn more about the tools and ideas that seem most useful. Don’t worry about what you may miss when you stop your broad based reading, because important ideas will bubble to the top eventually.

3. Approach your learning from two perspectives:
- How does a tool mesh with your skill set? Will it be easy for you to use, or difficult for you? Can you use it well?
- What situations will be best for the tool? Are certain industries, companies, or employees more likely to embrace this tool?

4. Constantly re-evaluate what you know, what you are learning, and how well you are applying it. This one is tough for me personally, because any time spent in the “meta” stage (where I am thinking about the way that I think and apply these ideas) seems like wasted time. It seems like that time may be better spent learning something new or learning something more in-depth. But, in a world with overwhelming amounts of information, the only way to make sure you stay on the right path is this constant self-evaluation period. Think of it as time spent looking at a roadmap to make sure you are picking the right roads to get you where you want to go.

Building a great business over the long-term is a difficult thing to do. Your best shot at success is not to be simple minded in how you go about it, but to learn as much as possible. Increase the number of tools at your disposal. Constantly improve your ability to use them. Over the long-term, you will end up much better off than those who are distracted by quick fixes and easy absolutes.


3 Responses to “Picking the Right Tool: Why Absolutes Aren’t the Path to Success”

  1. Patrick Fitzsimmons on December 27th, 2007 4:46 pm

    There’s the old adage - “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows many things”

    There was a study recently, trying to identify which intellectuals were best at predicting foreign policy events. It turns out that age, education, experience, and job title were all uncorrelated. The biggest correlation was that people who had a cognitive style like the fox were far more successful ( http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7959.html ).

    I think the same holds true for business. The only universal law of business is that you want to be the fox, not the hedgehog. Don’t get hung up one idea, but have a large toolbox and be able to quickly try different tools in response to events.

  2. Charlie on December 31st, 2007 6:12 am

    Just wanted to show you that I followed you over here. :)

  3. Deborah on January 2nd, 2008 1:26 am

    Easy means lots of competitors, give me something that is complicated for entrepreneurs and easy for users.
    Merry Xmas Rob!

  • About Rob

    Rob is co-founder of Backupify.com. He likes value investing, the Rolling Stones, college basketball, artificial intelligence, economic history and people who think independently.