Do Tools Matter?

In a meeting last week, we got into a debate about the value of tools in an organization. Specifically, we were discussing the merits of our chosen IT demand management software and Agile Project Management tool and whether or not they can be credited with the increase in productivity that our group has achieved over the past few months. During this debate, the following statement was blurted out:

Tools don’t matter.

As a software implementer and developer for the past 12 years, this was a shocking statement to hear. I make my living creating and implementing software that is designed to make organizations better and to hear this statement goes against everything that I’ve been doing my entire career.

The most appalling part of this statement is that the person who muttered it was none other than ME!

That’s right, the person who has pushed harder than most and worked his tail off to get people to adopt tools was now arguing that they don’t even matter. Anyone who has worked with me knows that at times, I’ve been known to blurt out absurd statements like this because I don’t have much of a filter. When I get riled up (which happens more often than I like to admit), I tend to speak more from the heart than the brain, but the point that I was trying to make in this particular debate is not that tools are worthless.

Obviously, tools help us . I could use a teaspoon to dig a hole, but I may be more effective with a shovel, or maybe much more effective with this. Need to eat some ice cream? Try a spoon. Want to chop down a tree? Here’s an axe. Need an integrated way to manage your business? Try SAP ECC. Tools directly or indirectly affect all that we do throughout our day. It was our tool making/using ability coupled with our opposable thumbs that shot us humans right up to the top of the food chain. The problem with tools though is that they only tell part of the story. The point I was trying to make with my “Tools don’t matter,” comment was:

While tools do in fact matter, PEOPLE matter MORE.

I think most sensible people would agree with me on this. You can have all the fancy tools that money (and/or time) can buy, but your organization may still suck. Conversely, there are many successful companies running on archaic or non-existent tools with great people that are doing just fine. The purpose of a tool is to assist PEOPLE in achieving a certain goal. Without good people, you may be able to get the job done, but at what cost? People are the ones that evaluate tools, invent tools, improve tools, and most importantly use tools to get the most out of each one.

Several years ago I began studying and introducing more Agile practices into my daily work. The hook that sold me on Agile as a better way to work was not found in some agile best practice toolkit nor was it found by talking with a “certified agile life changer”. It was found in the simplicity of the Agile Manifesto. The manifesto goes like this:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tool
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
4. Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile Manifesto

Tools come and go, processes and plans change, your work evolves. The one constant in most workplaces is the fact that if you want to get something done, more than likely you’ll have to get it done with and through PEOPLE. While I believe that the tools have helped us in visualizing our demand and processes, they are still just tools. At the end of the day, these tools hold a list of tasks that we worker bees can work from. The productivity increase is not caused by the one single list that tells me all of the demand for my time. The key is in the fact that we, as PEOPLE, can ACTIVELY MANAGE the workload. We can work with our customers and colleagues through a series of interactions to ensure that we are working on the right things and putting together the right solutions.

The tools do provide us with a great conversation starter (a task, a project request, etc.), but it is the collaboration with our customers, developers, and analysts that brings our projects to life. Surround yourself with great people, and you can achieve great success.

A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop.

Robert Hughes


  • EricV

    June 27, 2012 - 3:26 am

    I really want that digging machine.
    On a serious note, people are definitely the most important part of any company. The difficulty is that finding talented and driven people is super hard and really expensive. Many companies have to find ways to drive value with “average folks”. Processes and tools become critical in this case.

  • AntonK

    June 27, 2012 - 3:26 am

    Another thought – is there a positive correlation between how good you are at something and how important the tools are to you? A great carpenter knows the value of a quality tape measure, a master chef will spend the money to get professional grade knives, ask any pro golf player and they will tell you that they don’t compromise when it comes to equipment. Why would software or IT be any different?
    Of course if you don’t know what you are doing, then no tool in the world is going to help you.

    Point is, people are more important than tools, but tools are REALLY important as well, especially if you call yourself a “professional”.

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