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Are You a Prisoner of Your Tools?

July 19, 2019

What do you need to get a job done? You need the right tools and the right skills (and you might need some form of process – more about that later). But the wrong tools in the right hands is a recipe for disaster.

In practice I see this mismatch more than I expected. And more often than not, the people involved in the job execution don’t recognize this mismatch until precious time and effort are wasted – if it’s recognized in the first place.

So why does this happen?

Pat & Mat


Definition of tool

Let’s start with the basics. Oxford Dictionaries defines a tool as:

1      A device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a
particular function: ‘gardening tools’

1.1   A thing used to help perform a job:
‘computers are an essential tool’
‘the ability to write clearly is a tool of the trade’

1.2  A person used or exploited by another:
‘the beautiful Estella is Miss Havisham’s tool’

1.3  Computing A piece of software that carries out a particular function, typically creating or modifying another program.

2      A distinct design in the tooling of a book.

2.1  A small stamp or roller used to make a tooled design.

What stands out for me is “used to carry out a particular function” and “a thing used to help perform a job”. If this particular function and job would be static, and the tool is carefully selected to fit the desired needs, I shouldn’t be all that difficult.

But here’s the catch: everything changes all the time.

How often do you change your tools?

It would be desirable to be able to select, adjust and discard tools continuously based on your current needs. But this can be a painful process for various reasons.

Your tools might:

  • have a price tag and contractual obligations;
  • be purchased by someone else than the people that actually work with it;
  • have relatively high cost for implementation;
  • require specific competencies to be used effectively;
  • be integrated in and/or be dependent on other tools you use;
  • actually be part of a toolset or suite for many related or different particular functions, making it difficult to nearly impossible to discard a single tool (think about ERP)

Try to find out how you can minimize these constraints. For example, the first three can be minimized by open-source tools.

Side effects of your tools

Be aware of the negative impact your tool can have on your process and team collaboration.

Your tool might:

  • decrease creativity and increases reactive behavior;
  • decrease real interaction between people; people talk less to each other;
  • limit you to adjust your process or even worse: dictate your process.

In case you were wondering why sticky notes are so popular with software development teams, now you know.

What I do

Don’t become a prisoner of your tools. Keep it lightweight, stick to the bare minimum you need, and regularly inspect if it still helps you executing this particular function. If not, get rid of it and look out for something else. But I have to make an important side note here: don’t focus on local optimization but focus on global system goals. Everything you do should contribute to delivering value fast to your customer. If it doesn’t, eliminate the process itself. I’m referring here to aspects from Systems Thinking and Lean. This is a huge and fascinating topic that I won’t address any further here, but I can highly recommend Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline about Systems Thinking – a must read on this topic.


There isn’t such a thing as the perfect tool. But if you have a thorough understanding of the job at hand and what you want to achieve as a whole, you are likely to find the tools you need – or you’ll discover you might be better off without a particular one. Whatever you do, evaluate your tools from time to time to identify the possible pitfalls.

I would love to hear if you have experienced other side effects or constraints of your tools. Feel free to share them below. I know there are more out there…

If you would like to learn more, check out my upcoming training courses.


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