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Hammers, Nails, and What Everything Looks Like

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Abraham Maslow popularized the folk saying “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That phenomenon describes an ongoing crisis in the modern workplace.

This is part five of our series on cognitive biases in business. What’s a “cognitive bias?” It’s a naturally-occurring psychological effect which causes us to make bad decisions. And in the case of Maslow’s hammer, this one has struck many a thumb.


© Flickr user James Case

When it was first brought into common use (helped in part by the famous psychologist), the idea of “when all you have is a hammer” was often applied to the practice of medicine. Doctors, in particular, were accused of only using the specific techniques in which they had been trained. The human body is more complicated than a handful of procedures, and as a result these professionals were not particularly effective.

The idea, however, applies to all aspects of business. In its broadest form the concept is called function fixedness. A piece in the Harvard Business Review explains the landmark experiment that launched the field:

Study subjects were handed a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks and asked to figure out how to stick the candle to a wall so that when lit the wax wouldn’t drip on the floor. The simple solution was to remove the tacks from the box, set the candle upright in the box, and then tack the box to the wall. The problem was, most participants’ understanding of the box as an object used for holding the tacks was so strong and entrenched, they couldn’t imagine that it could also become a makeshift shelf. They were literally unable to “think outside the box.”

Here are some real-world examples of the problem in workplaces:

That’s Not Our Department

Specialization in business is usually advisable. In fact, it’s often a good thing to tell a co-worker, politely, “that’s not my job.” But one client we worked with, a vice president could not conceive even one of his departments doing anything other than what they had always done.

“We’ll have to find an outside firm to build a new website,” he insisted. “We don’t have the ability to do anything like that in house.”

However, the company had a publications department which created a monthly magazine, an annual catalog, and handled all of their photography and external communications needs. The VP simply couldn’t conceive that this department had writers, copy editors, graphic designers, and technical experts. Perhaps some outside talent would be of value, but the knowledge was right there inside the business.

There’s Only One Software Application

Knowledge workers in modern businesses don’t often use hammers, but they do use computer programs. I’ve seen people try to do graphic design with Microsoft Word. I’ve seen people save web links in a text file instead of using bookmarks. And we know that there are considerable errors in public genetics data because of the tendency of scientists to use Microsoft Excel in DNA research.

That’s a terrible idea. Find the right tool for the job.

The Multi-Purpose Vendor

One more example comes from a business that had engaged an outside consulting firm to help with some compliance training. They liked the work they did, so they asked them to lead some other workshops.

Then the company needed some copywriting help for the employee manual, so they asked the consultants to assist with that. And then they wanted some assistance recruiting and interviewing, so they did that too. And then they were getting ready to relocate to a new office so the consultants came by to help pack boxes and move furniture.

Of course, there are much better resources for many of these tasks, but if all you have is a hammer…

Fighting Functional Fixedness

Here’s how you stop this from happening: memorize the words “Are we using the right tool for this task?”

Whenever a suggestion is made, use that phrase. Whenever a plan is developed, use that phrase. And if the phrase itself becomes tired, find a new way to say it!

Don’t get stuck with Maslow’s hammer. You’re sure to stub your finger; or worse.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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