Default to Action & Overcome the Toolbox Fallacy
Blog: The Process Street Blog
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” – George Patton
“Once I have X, I can do Y.”
This phrase is the defining characteristic of the toolbox fallacy: thinking you can’t do something until you have the right tool.
The toolbox Fallacy is self-deception disguised as excuses or a lack of “tools”. The issue with these tools is that you believe that you need them and thus, can’t (or won’t) start a project without them.
“As soon as my Apple Watch arrives, I’ll start training for the 5K.”
The problem is when X arrives, do you crack on and get started with the Y? Often times, it’s too easy to continue down the slippery slope of toolbox logic.
“My Apple Watch arrived, but now I need a coaching app – which I am yet to have downloaded.”
So, how do you overcome the toolbox fallacy? Simple: You default to action. In other words, you get the ball rolling – whether you have all the tools you think you need or not.
The solution, in a sense, is to be more agile.
In this post I’ll be looking at how to overcome the toolbox fallacy by putting the systems in place to move fast, and with virtue. I’ll try to address:
- How do you plan and structure clear action items, so you can move fast and be sure you’re making the right decisions?
- How will you move fast without breaking things (by things I mean humans)?
And, to sum things up I’ll take a look at how we at Process Street use OKRs to decide when it is we should be moving fast vs when we should be slowing down.
To jump to a specific section click the appropriate links below:
- Toolbox fallacy: Once I have X, I can do Y
- Moving fast with the toolbox fallacy
- A framework to move fast (& with virtue)
- How our OKRs help us avoid the toolbox fallacy
Toolbox fallacy: Once I have X, I can do Y
The toolbox fallacy exists because some of us find it easier to make excuses for not doing something rather than run the risk of failure.
The toolbox fallacy is a thought process you adopt that tells you that you can only accomplish your goals if you have the right “tools”, or when everything lines up and the moment is just right. Unfortunately, life doesn’t quite work that way. There will always be more tools, and, is there really such a thing as the perfect moment?
There are always exceptions; sometimes, tools are a necessity. A professional surfer needs a surfboard, but having a surfboard doesn’t make them a professional surfer. That takes skill. Trust me I’d know, last year I invested in my dreamtool: a new surfboard. Yet I still managed to hit myself in the face with it just last week. Despite having the tool, I’m still far a longshot away from a pro.
Whether it’s surfing or launching your own business, the likelihood is that you won’t succeed (or become pro) immediately. Having better “tools” won’t save you from failure nor will they ensure your success. However, letting fear stop you from at least trying to succeed – now that is failure.
As John Wooden said, you should not let “fear of failure prevent effort.”
The toolbox fallacy & the concept of “moving fast”
The concept of moving fast is not a new one, particularly in the SaaS arena; Mark Zuckerburg himself lives by the motto, “Move Fast & Break Things”.
The “move fast” mentality focuses more on the time taken to make a decision than the decision itself.
If you start your decision-making process by asking “how much time and effort is this decision worth?” And, “who should have input?” You’ll have mastered the first requirement of speediness. Here at Process Street, since moving from Agile methods to Shape Up, our Development team has mastered this requirement. The result? They cut our development cycle by 75% (to read more about this transition check out this blog).
Ultimately, the process of making and remaking decisions wastes an insane amount of time. I know, I know: some decisions are harder than others. This is where a system like Shape Up can help. It shows you which decisions are actually worth your time, and which aren’t.
The art of good decision-making lies in your ability to come to a decision as fast as possible whilst ensuring that all those involved have the opportunity to voice any concerns. This helps you to avoid rabbit holes and cover possible risks so you can find solutions for them.
In tech, speed is an asset in product development. Hence the “move fast and break things” mentality, or, in other words, the prioritization of minimum viable products (MVPs) and agile development.
Think of it like this: big companies are slow. Startups are fast. One of the reasons for this is that bigger companies have more boxes to tick (so to speak). Many of these boxes fall within the socio-cultural realm, and this is where a problem lies. For startups, in the rush to get products to market, other areas get left behind.
What does this have to do with the toolbox fallacy?
When moving fast there are certain obstacles that can slow you down. Whether it be a lack of dedicated time to complete a project (like Shape Up’s appetite), your team members holding one another up, or a lack of a desired “tool” holding you back. Regardless of the obstacle, one key problem stands strong throughout: The longer you take to do something the more likely it is your competitors will beat you to it.
In summary, I’m saying that fast equals good… right?
Controversy in tech with the moving fast mentality
The move fast and break things mentality has fallen victim to scrutiny in recent months. Why? Because by focusing on rushing to ship MVPs startups have been neglecting the socio-cultural ramifications of their innovations.
According to Hemant Taneja of General Catalyst, the era of “move fast and break things” is over:
“[T]he public will continue to grow weary of perceived abuse by tech companies, and will favor businesses that address economic, social, and environmental problems. […] Minimum viable products must be replaced by minimum virtuous products.” – Hemant Taneja, The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over
Taneja goes on to say that companies need to be aware of the effect of their offerings and guard against potential harm. It’s no longer enough to simply “move fast” when delivering MVPs; consumers are increasingly using company ideals to make decisions.
So, how do you move fast – without breaking things – while remaining virtuous at the same time?
A framework to move fast (& with virtue)
This framework is structured as a series of questions to ask yourself when you’re slowing down, to avoid the toolbox fallacy, or to bring some speedy structure into your workflows.
The framework consists of two sections, the first of which is inspired by the CEO of Mutiny Jaleh Rezaei’s comments in an interview with First Round Review. The second section focuses on adding virtue into the equation and builds on Rezaei’s guidance with Hemant Taneja’s questions sourced from the Harvard Business Review.
- How do you plan to break down large problems?
One way to tackle large problems or projects is the black hat technique. Put forward by Rezaei, the technique involves asking one really tough question. For example: “Let’s assume the it’s one year from now and we’ve failed a key goal. What went wrong?” The aim here is to activate your team’s problem-solving mentality, and avoid overly optimistic thinking that can lead to oversight. When applying the “black hat technique” you want to end up with a list of 5 to 10 major assumptions implicit in achieving the long-term goal of your business.
- Do your goals align with a “ship it” mindset?
Remember I mentioned how at Process Street we recently moved to Shape Up? Well, the “ship it” mindset is a core component of this approach. In fact, the overarching goal with Shape Up is to get projects shipped as quickly as possible. To find out more on how we embody a ship it mindset check out this post: Shape Up vs Scrum: 6 Months to 6 Weeks – How We Cut Our Dev Cycle 75%
- Are you prioritizing your weekly targets?
The aim here is to break down your quarterly goals into more bite-size chunks. Rezaei suggests picking the goal that’s furthest down the funnel that can still be impacted every week. Say you have a quarterly goal to secure 12 new premium users; you should be securing one premium user a week, rather than 12 in the last week.
- Do you hold regular learning meetings?
According to Rezaei, ideally, you’d hold bi-weekly meetings. Within these sessions, try to ascertain what team members have learned that they didn’t know two weeks ago.
- Are you using the best possible tools for you and your team?
Be careful here. To avoid the toolbox fallacy you don’t want to waste too much time (or resources) on researching and investing in swanky high-tech tools. This is not to say that technology is not hugely important for ensuring you get your projects up and running as quickly as possible – because it most certainly is. The key here is to choose your tools wisely and to try to get started as quickly as possible. You’ll also want to keep the tools low tech so that it is easier to divest and use the best tool for your requirements.
- How do you decide whether to go forward with a project?
Shape Up uses the process of “betting” when deciding whether to run with a project or not. It’s an efficient, simple, and quick process that helps identify projects that will be shipped on time out from those that won’t. At the end of the day, there is no use in starting a project unless you’re 100% certain that it will be completed within the predefined time frame.
Moving with virtue
- What systemic, societal change do you wish to create with your product?
Think about the social impact of your product and consider how other technologies, trends, and stakeholders map their social vision for the future.
- How will you sustain the virtue of your product?
A good example here is social media. Facebook’s virtue has been damaged by a small number of iniquitous users who have caused major harm (think: cybercrime). To sustain the virtue of your product, be sure to anticipate and prevent its worst-case scenarios.
- How do you drive the greatest impact on an individual level?
In other words, consider how you will ensure that you impact narrower slices of customers more precisely and effectively.
- What do you think is an optimal growth rate? How will you keep yourself accountable as you scale
Your optimal growth rate depends on a variety of factors: the required pace of hiring, the complexity of services delivered, the capital intensity of expansion, and the size, maturity, and competition in the market, among others.
- How does your company dynamically evolve in response to regulation and account for the various stakeholders your product impacts?
As technologies grow more omnipresent, more powerful, and more difficult to understand, the threat of bad regulation grows. This means that if you don’t engage with the policy debate then regulator attention could turn towards overcorrection, destroying economic value, and crippling competitiveness.
- How do you define and promote diversity in the context of your business?
Prioritizing diversity can help you to stand out from the SaaS crowd. If you plan to prioritize diversity and inclusivity be sure to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I could write an entire post on companies that claim to promote diversity yet when push comes to shove they fall at the first hurdle. One example of this is Starbuck who publicly stated its allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement and then punished its employees who openly supported the cause.
“The numbers are striking: Only 8% of venture partners at major funds are female, less than 3% employ black or Latino investors, and less than 3% of venture capital went to all-female teams last year (compared to 79% to all-male founding teams). A meager 13% of venture capital flowed to minorities during that same period, despite the fact that we live in a country where, as of the last census, 35% of businesses are owned by women and 28% are owned by minorities.” – Hemant Taneja, The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over
How our OKRs help us avoid the toolbox fallacy
Numerous studies show that goal-setting improves employee performance and engagement. In other words, setting goals encourages your team to move faster.
“OKR” stands for objectives and key results. It’s a goal-setting method where individuals or teams set ambitious goals to be achieved within a certain time frame. Whether the objective has been achieved or not is then measured by the key results.
The OKRs defined:
The “O” = Objectives that help us to understand what we’re aiming for.
The “KR” = Key Results determine how we measure the success of the objective.
At Process Street we have clear OKRs that consciously tie our goals to our performance. Our OKRs help us decide when it’s appropriate to go slow and when we should be moving fast. Some tasks and goals will have a social impact and some won’t. The trick is to take the time to identify and strategically deal with each task that may have social ramifications.
Google also uses OKRs to avoid the toolbox fallacy, move fast, and incorporate social-cultural aspects into its agenda.
A game with Google
As I said, the trick is to know which OKR could have social ramifications and thus should be handled with care vs which would benefit from a speedy approach. To help you master this trick, I propose we play a little game.
I’m going to list two of Google’s OKRs. Once you’ve read each OKR, go back to the framework for moving fast & with virtue featured above. With the framework in mind, think to yourself:
- Which OKR will have a social impact?
- How you would manage it (hint: would you continue moving fast and breaking things? Or slow down and think virtuously?)
Objective: Get the sales teams to adopt machine-recommended opportunities as part of their core operating model.
Key Result: Increase the review rate of the machine-recommended opportunities from X to Y.
– Sameer Rane & Noelia Fernandez Arroyo, How Google Uses Sales OKRs to Drive Sustainable Results
Allow me to provide some context: Before setting this OKR, Google had been making use of machine learning to generate and suggest opportunities for their sales team. Unfortunately, most of the sales team weren’t trusting the machine-generated opportunities or leads as much as Google had hoped. To change the sales team’s behavior — and to fortify sales figures in the process – the OKR cited above was set.
Objective: Make upselling a core component of the sales team’s operating model.
Key Result: Drive incremental $ of upselling in the quarter of X to Y.
– Sameer Rane & Noelia Fernandez Arroyo, How Google Uses Sales OKRs to Drive Sustainable Results
Context: To drive a stronger sales mentality, Google’s Sales teams were encouraged to upsell on plans previously agreed with their customers. After tracking this OKR for a couple of quarters, Google couldn’t establish a clear business impact on the upsell revenue being booked by the sales teams. Why? Because of two key challenges.
The first challenge involved the reliable reporting of upsell opportunities. For accurate measurements, sales teams needed to tag an upsell opportunity with “[Qx UPSELL]”. However, team members would often misspell the tag, or forget it entirely. As a result, actual upsell activity was misrepresented.
The second – and arguably more substantial – challenge was a result of teams underreporting actual sales. Instead, they would add components as an upsell in order to show “success” on the OKR front.
The answer: Okay – you got me. Both of the OKRs had social ramifications. However, the key takeaway here is that in each of these examples, the OKRs helped the team decide how to act. In the former, by slowing down and thinking virtuously, Google realized that in order for machine learning to have the desired effect they needed to focus on, and prioritize, human behavior.
As for the second example: As an outcome of tracking the OKR, Google realized they had been too speedy in setting the objective. They hadn’t considered question 4 of the virtue section of the framework above: What do you think is an optimal growth rate? …By prioritizing growth and speed within their sales team the sales staff cut corners to meet the key result.
So, in conclusion, by setting OKRs you can move fast, get things done and avoid the toolbox fallacy. And, by tracking OKRs, you can see when it is time to take a step back, slow down, and think virtuously.
There you have it. Hopefully, this post has helped you understand both what the toolbox fallacy is, and how to avoid it. If you found this content useful and interesting, sign up (it’s free) for access to our future content and to learn more about what Process Street does.
For now, I’ll leave you with a quote:
“Speed isn’t just about executing quickly — cranking out blog posts and email marketing campaigns — but also an ability to turn the ship around rather than get stuck in a sandbar.” – Jaleh Rezaei, CEO and co-founder of Mutiny
Have you experienced the toolbox fallacy? If so, how did you overcome it? Do you have anything to add to this post? Let us know in the comments below.
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