Can I tell you a secret? I genuinely loathe and despise the expression “adding another tool to the toolbox.” And every variation thereof.
It’s an aphorism of sorts, and I get that. Theoretically, adding tools to our metaphorical toolbox should be a good thing. It should mean that we’re enhancing our knowledge, expanding our skills and providing ourselves with more resources that we can leverage and apply as we tackle the obstacles that life presents us with.
For all the theoretical value that implies, however, I have some problems with the notion that “tools for the toolbox” is necessarily a worthy goal. For starters, some of us are packrats, and like adding tools for the sake of adding tools. We quite simply don’t know when to stop. And so we wind up with a very large toolbox, filled with shiny, compelling tools that we have never found the opportunity to use.
Others of us seek to specialize. Every professional development opportunity is a chance to delve into more of the same. We explore increasingly specialist topics, developing deeper and deeper knowledge of subjects whose potential for application becomes progressively narrower and precisely defined. What we wind up doing is adding yet another variation of the tools that we have and know how to use, each tool more or less like the others, except for some subtle nuance.
Yet others of us acquire tools and then immediately seek opportunities to use them. In this context, another aphorism springs to mind: “Once you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” In other words, we don’t analyze the problem itself, considering what the issue is and how best to solve it. Instead, we reframe the problem in the context of the solutions that we have available to us. At its most extreme, every problem we encounter is a candidate for the solution that we have most recently learned.
These examples are all reasonable cautions in and of themselves to indiscriminately adding tools to our toolboxes. But none of them fully encapsulates the primary reason why the expression frustrates me. Tools are just that: ways of tackling specific problems. They are particular means of dealing with distinct tasks.
When we apprentice to a trade, we learn about our tools. We learn what they are, what they do and how to properly care for them. We begin to learn why one particular tool is subtly different than other of similar purpose and function. But that’s all just going over the essentials. It’s not the tools that matter, it’s what you do with them that counts.
You may know what a hammer is. You may know it’s purpose and how to use it appropriately. You may even appreciate that all matters now placed before you are not, in fact, nails begging to be hit. You may also recognize the purpose of a wrench, a pair of pliers, a screwdriver or a hex key. While that is all well and good, that doesn’t mean you have any knowledge of how to repair a car. Or to fix a leaking tap. Or to build a house. The tools in isolation don’t help us to solve the larger problem of what we are trying to do.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem of skill-based training. It isolates, segments and segregates. We learn problem solving. Project management. Strategic planning. Soft skills like negotiation, facilitation and communication. Risk management. All very useful. All very helpful. All relevant. And all so terribly, terribly isolated.
The challenge of solving our organizational problems is not having more tools in our toolbox. It’s about using the tools that we have well, and comprehensively. It’s about finding integrative ways of combining the tools we have to solve the challenges that we face. In other words, it’s not the tool that matters. It’s what you do with it.
Innuendo notwithstanding, what that means is that we need to focus our attention—and our skills development—on the things that really matter. We don’t need to build out more tools in our arsenal. We need to focus on problem solving, creativity, innovation, strategic thinking and holistic approaches to dealing with complex and difficult situations. We need situational leadership abilities, facilitation skills and a tolerance for ambiguity.
All of this isn’t what we learn at the apprentice level, as we begin to understand our tools. It’s not even what we take on board as we become a recognized journeyman, able to apply the tools and use them effectively. What this all speaks to is mastery: the ability to adaptively respond to weird, difficult, unusual situations and still figure out an answer.
What defines mastery is not about the learning of the rule that defines apprenticeship. It’s not even about being able to apply the rules, as we do as a non-gender-specific journeyman. Instead, mastery is about knowing why the rules are the rules. It’s about knowing where they came from, how they developed and why they are relevant. Even more, though it’s about knowing when the rules stop being useful. Mastery involves knowing when to apply the rules, when to bend the rules, when to break them and when to fundamentally ignore them.
Tools in the toolbox are nice. They are useful. They give us an excuse to visit bookshops and office supply stores, and that’s always a fun outing. But they aren’t what makes us successful, valued, strategic and relevant. What is most important is our ability to use the tools we have to solve the problems with which we are faced. If we are to be successful, our bias should be towards a more robust understanding of problems and possible solutions, not an ever-larger tool chest.