« »

Law of the Instrument: It’s Hammer Time

Abraham Maslow is perhaps better known for the Hierarchy of Needs. When we think about human motivation—what a person might want or do in any given situation—we run the scenario through the Hierarchy of Needs to gauge its relative importance. But Maslow developed another analytical tool that’s also in widespread use. It’s called Maslow’s Law of the Instrument and has to do with over-reliance on a familiar tool.

In conversations about business or technical strategy, it will often emerge in the following formulation:

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Once this incantation is uttered, all around the table nod in agreement. The tool has defined the solution instead of going to the extra effort of finding for the right tool for the job. The job is calling out for the right tool, and you’ve only brought a hammer to the table.

As a worthwhile tangent to this topic, it’s worth exploring the close cousins of the Law of the Instrument: regulatory capture and confirmation bias.

One might imagine that jobs and tools had been split in half by Zeus, and each wandered the earth looking for its perfect other half. Tools, it seems, operate under a well-understood set of modes and rules. If those rules-of-use don’t match up with the job, then the tool is imposing an alien structure on to a job. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve occasionally used a wrench as a hammer to good effect.

When we employ the tactic of the Law of the Instrument, we silence the instrument in favor of the job. The job dictates the dialogue and determines the rules of engagement. Yet when used thoughtlessly, the tactic itself becomes an instrument subject to the Law of the Instrument. Tools, and hammers in particular, often have more to say than our rules of thumb would suggest. For instance there’s a common joke among carpenters:

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a thumb.

When Nietzsche talks about philosophizing with a hammer, he isn’t thinking about nails. He uses the hammer to test idols by tapping them lightly with a hammer, he sounds them out. The hammer is used to determine whether the idols are hollow or intact.

In the Law of the Instrument, it’s not the hammer that creates the limitations. It’s the familiarity, the habit of using a hammer in a particular way. If we approach the hammer with a beginner’s mind and allow its strangeness to surface, we may find our toolbox populated with a whole new set of instruments:

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a mole popping out of one of an immense field of holes.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a rock to be broken on a chain gang.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a carnival game where you have to prove your strength by making a bell ring.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like something to be heated to a red hot temperature and fashioned on an anvil.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a sculpture waiting to be released from a hunk of marble.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem inspires you to hammer out justice, hammer out freedom, hammer out love between your brothers and your sisters all over this land.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a coconut that has yet to give up its meat and milk.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like rice on its way to becoming mochi.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks as though it could be solved by the god of thunder.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem can be solved by tossing the hammer farther than the other guy.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a low-budget, British horror movie.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like one of eighty eight strings on a piano.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it needs its reflexes tested.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem sounds as though it’s related to the parts of the ear.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like you can’t touch it.

Comments

Comments are closed.