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Using the right instrument for the job

How and when to use tools effectively.

When I was 10 years old, the sprocket on my bike needed fixing so my buddy and I decided to fix it ourselves. Sitting in his garage, we glanced around for tools and only saw a hammer, so we decided to use the claw on the hammer to wedge between…well, I don’t remember the details but it was a major fail.

And when his Dad saw us he gave us heck for using the wrong tool for the job.

Instrumental thinking

Little did I know that we were succumbing to a cognitive bias called (coincidentally) the law of the hammer, also known as the law of the instrument.

In 1964 philosopher Abraham Kaplan said, "I call it the law of the instrument and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

I am sure you have heard some version of that famous saying. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Similarly, as I often point out in my keynote presentations, if you are always on the lookout for threats, as the lizard brain is, everything looks like a threat. It is the cause of the negativity bias and unfounded suspicion.

The law of the instrument says that we are over-reliant on readily available tools. And not just physical tools, but mental tools as well. Kaplan said that scientists tend to over-use research methods they are most familiar and comfortable with rather than learning new methods that would be more appropriate for a given project.

I spent 25 years as a programmer analyst and there are many languages and coding techniques available. Usually when I learned a new tool it was for a specific project or application, but then I would often try to use that tool for other projects as well, whether or not it was the best fit for the job. Sometimes it was, other times not.

The sunk cost fallacy surely comes into play here. When we spend time and money to acquire a mental or physical tool, we feel the need to get use out of it to justify the expense. But the expense is already made so there is no added value in using it where it is not appropriate, just the additional cost of using the wrong tool for the job.

The right tool for the job

Here are a few strategies for overcoming the law of the instrument:

-    Have a well-stocked toolkit. Mental models are excellent problem-solving tools and allow you to use methods from a variety of domains, such as economics, psychology, math, or engineering. You can learn about the leaders, discoverers and producers in those fields and how they apply their thinking to problems. (See the Think Links section below for more on mental models).

-    Use the “Confront the Lizard” method. That is, don’t just grab a handy tool and plow ahead, but take a moment to evaluate what the best tool would be regardless of what you currently have. Then, if it is something you lack, analyze the costs and benefits of acquiring the new skill or tool.

-    Build a diverse team. By including people with different skill sets and backgrounds you will be starting with a multitude of tools from the get go.

Remember, that shiny new hammer you bought sure looks nice, but maybe it’s not the best option for tightening that nut. Or for debugging that code.

Think well and be well!

- Steve

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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