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To a Carpenter with a Hammer, Every Problem Looks Like a Nail!
By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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 to 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
eN-080508 – 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
eN-091105 – 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
A recent example for me is a person who is a process expert (their “hammer”)
who sees all problems (“nails”) as process problems 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
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
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