In his 1964 book Scientific Method in Behavioral Science, Andrew Kaplan described his Law of the Instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” You may have heard this paraphrased “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Picture a boy with a new hammer who encounters a plastic bottle. Will he (A) Ignore it, (B) Recycle it, or (C) Hit it with the hammer? The boy, of course, completes what Paul Nutt describes as an Idea-Imposition process. The boy has an idea and he implements it with no consideration for option (A) or (B). But Paul Nutt didn’t study what a boy does with a hammer, he studied 400 critical business decisions and his 20 years of research shows half of those decisions are made with the same impulsive behavior. When we ask business critical questions like how we can improve work practices, or save money, or make the most of our limited resources, our thoughts often (impulsively) turn to technology and like the boy with the hammer, once we have an idea we implement it.

The thing is, when we turn to technology, we often provide a reasonable answer to the wrong question because it’s in that instant that our focus often shifts away from the change that is necessary to improve work practices, save money, or become more efficient, and it shifts toward implementing technology. Technology becomes the alpha the omega. When we implement a technology based solution we provide a reasonable answer to the wrong question because by that time, the only question becomes, “How’s that computer thing coming along?” In his 2002 Nobel Prize lecture Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon as attribute substitution: people who are confronted with a difficult question sometimes answer an easier one instead.

When the computer thing is complete the results are less than stellar, because technology is not the answer to any of the difficult questions. Technology, like exercise equipment, doesn’t do anything, it just is, and work practices can only be improved, money can only be saved, and we can only become more efficient through change. In that same book that Andrew Kaplan wrote about the hammer, he had this to say about what he called electronic computers: “(I)t is not they that produce scientific results, but the investigator that uses them scientifically.” Technology isn’t the answer, but when people use technology to change what they’re doing, that change may provide the answer to those difficult questions. The distinction between implementing “technology” and “technology enabled change” may seem like a subtle point, but it has extraordinary ramifications. It means that in order to succeed we need to focus on change more than technology, and when our focus shifts from the messy business of change (the hard question) to all about the technology (the easier question), we simultaneously lose sight of goals and the promise of technology.

And it happens in the blink of an eye. Well, faster, but the point is it happens before we know it’s happening. The bad news is that because attribute substitution happens before we know it, we don’t question it. We literally don’t give it a second thought. The good news is that although we can’t see it in ourselves, we can see it in others. So the next time you hear someone posing technology as the answer to a difficult question, picture the boy with the hammer. Then ask how the [investigator] might use [an electronic computer] to facilitate [scientific results] and you’ll be back on the right track.


Post a Comment