When I was quite young, my parents bought me a toy that was very typical for pre-kindergarten boys at the time. It consisted of a small wooden workbench-like table with several pegs of various colors and sizes tightly fitted into holes in the workbench’s surface. The toy came with a wooden mallet for pounding down the pegs flush with the bench’s surface. Once a child had finished leveling all of the pegs, the workbench could be flipped over to reveal the full set of pegs newly in need of pounding. I’ve since come to realize that the toy was some sort of maniacal children’s boot camp preparing me for adult life where each new day brings the previous day’s pegs standing tall and waiting to be pounded down once again.
Some years later, my grandfather presented me with a large block of wood, a box of heavy—and, therefore, hard-to-bend—nails, and my very own real hammer. I had apparently reached a point in my hammering prowess that it was time to move on to more challenges. Much as in real life, the nails required some degree of careful attention in the beginning in order to turn out correctly. I’d learned how to avoid bending a nail when driving it—valuable preparation for facing the reality that things do not always go as planned. And, I’d learned how to straighten out the nail once I had bent it—which, of course, taught me that I could recover from my mistakes with a bit of time, attention and patience.
Years later, as an adult, I worked with a man who brought my prepubescent tool experiences full circle. One day, he referenced a prior co-worker as having been nothing more than “a fool with a tool.” He explained that in spite of his cohort’s skill with and knowledge of the tool, the man consistently failed to apply the tool to accomplish anything. He was frequently seen busily using the tool, but he never seemed to get anything worthwhile done.
As I ponder this important distinction in light of today’s rapidly expanding world of new technologies, I find it disturbing to consider just how many companies focus on a particular tool, learn all about it and how to use it, and then fail to apply it in a meaningful way. It would seem that the fool-with-a-tool syndrome is alive and well in the new millennium. But, it doesn’t have to always end that way. It turns out that companies can easily avoid this common pitfall by following a structured approach to addressing their business automation opportunities and saving their tool selection for last. What follows is a set of five rules that I used for years while consulting to make sure that whatever work I did produced meaningful results for the company in question.