Concept of the Day: The Law of the Instrument – “To the man with a hammer…”

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow

More commonly expressed as:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

(I’ve not attributed the common version to anyone because that appears to be up for debate)

The Law of the Instrument is another of those cognitive biases, which appear to be fruitful ideas for these Concept of the Day posts. I think that the reason I find biases so fascinating is that they reveal things about the way we think and provide explanations for why we behave in certain ways and certain situations. The Law of Instrument highlights our tendency to place an over-reliance upon a familiar tool. I suspect that each of us has at least one example of situations we’ve encountered where this has been the case.

I used to have a colleague who would write documents in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – which his Personal Assistant would then retype into a Microsoft Word document. He knew how to use a spreadsheet, so that’s what he used.

In a similar vein, many organisations send out corporate communications as Microsoft Word documents because that is what the corporate communications team are comfortable creating them in. This annoys everyone, especially the people on mobile devices.

We’ve covered Excel and Word, so I didn’t want to leave PowerPoint out :-). Not sure I need to give an example here though. we have the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” for a reason.

Most of the features of most applications are rarely used, because people don’t go looking for more effective ways of doing things. Once you’ve worked out how to create a table it’s likely that you’ll always create a table that way. I’ve seen several methods employed by applications to nudge us away from our ingrained behaviours, but we keep coming back to the hammer that we already have available to us.

Organisations are dependent upon the data analysis that people do in Microsoft Excel because that’s the tool they are familiar with, when far better tools exist.

The language used by many coding projects is defined by what the chosen developer knows. There’s rarely much discussion about finding the right language, and hence the right developer, for the project.

There’s a current trend to move people to Agile project management methods. In many cases organisations are moving from having one methodology for project management, which was only appropriate to some types of project, to another project management methodology which is only appropriate for a different set of projects. The thought of running two different project management methodologies is regarded as heresy. Agile has become the one-size-fits-all answer to project management.

The Abraham Maslow in the original quote is the same one who produced the Hierarchy of Needs. What better example of The Law of the Instrument could you wish for? The Hierarchy of Needs has, for many, become the universal tool for explaining people’s behaviour. Whilst The Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool, it’s very unlikely that there is a universal tool for explaining all of human behaviour.

Like all biases, the first step in overcoming it is to recognise that it exists. What we all need in our lives is someone who is regulalrly asking us “why did you do it like that?” Our answer to that question will be a good guide to thye impact of The Law of Instrument in our lives. Another good question to ask is “is there a different way of doing this?” It’s unlikely there isn’t an alternative but if you can’t think of one then you need to challenge your bias.

Cognitive Bias Posts:

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