Tools of Our Lives
The other day, I heard someone describe an annual ritual he calls “email bankruptcy,” as a way of dealing with the inbox zero problem. The idea is that at the start of the year you set aside a day to read and respond to as many high-priority emails as you can and then delete the rest once time is up. You start the year on top of your emails for a change, and anything really important will come back around.
I liked the concept, and since I live in the world of product management it also got me wondering about all of the different tools I’ve downloaded over the years. I love trying out products, but it was long past time to delete a bunch of programs and apps I never used anymore or didn’t like.
Excluding all of the tools I use to maintain my website and do my email and social marketing, I think I can function in my professional life with just these twenty-five tools:
Twenty-five tools might sound high, but even though I’m probably forgetting a few, my list is significantly smaller than it was a few years ago. For some of my colleagues, getting their work done with a mere twenty-five tools is a pipe dream. The software developers I work with need considerably more tools than this, as do some of my other colleagues. Whatever the “right” number is, what’s clear is that to be a knowledge worker is to use a growing number of tools to get your work done. As the list of things we do grows longer more specialized, the number of tools that help us do those things grows accordingly.
Pause for a moment and count the number of different products you use just to capture, organize, analyze, and transmit information. Now add in the administrative tools and the ones that are highly specific to your job function, and I bet you’ll have a number not very different from mine, if not higher. Some of them you choose to use, and some of them you have to use. I want to focus on this latter, because here is where you’re likely to encounter tools that get in the way of doing your job. Frustrating though it is, broken processes and clumsy tools are opportunities to make your company better.
When Tools Get in the Way
Businesses roll out software to their employees for the reasons you’re already familiar with: standardize processes, reduce communication friction, organize information, enable them to find business opportunities, and so on. The needs are pretty straightforward, but the choice of tools to those inside the organization can sometimes feel anything but.
Organizations balance multiple interests when they license tools for employees. They look at cost, ease of implementation, feature availability, compatibility and other purchase considerations. As you may have experienced, what’s good for the organization can be painful for the person who has to use these tools. And because of the cost and time involved replacing old tools, bad tools can live on for a long time in an organization. That can be a real hindrance if you rely on tools that don’t work very well to do your job. I found this out rather early in my career thanks to a bad experience with a product I had to use.
The first company I worked for back in 2006 used a product called Siebel (now part of Oracle) as its customer relationship management software. Salespeople used it to record information about their sales meetings, and research analysts (my department) used it to log research interviews with the same people. In theory, we were supposed to all take meticulous notes about whom we spoke to and when so that we wouldn’t spam the same people over and over. But in practice, people weren’t diligent about this, so sometimes you would reach out to a customer with a research request only to find they’d told your colleague just last week to stop contacting them so <expletive> much. Angry customers meant account managers who were angry at me. Once that happened, I couldn’t trust the tool anymore, so I would track salespeople down to confirm whatever I found in Siebel. It might take a day or two of waiting for people to get back to me every time. It was an annoying situation. If I used the tool like I was told to, I risked angering clients and making them less likely to renew their subscriptions. But being considerate and going outside the tool slowed down my work and it made me look unproductive.
I was a very unhappy Siebel user, though to be fair it was my company’s fault as much as the product’s. Still, it was a formative experience for me professionally that reinforced two lessons:
- You can’t let bad tools (or good tools implemented badly) keep you from doing your job.
- Improving how an organization gets work done is a high-leverage way to create value.
If the Cabin Loses Pressure, Put Your Own Mask on First…
You’ll be required to use lots of tools in your career. When there’s a bad fit between your needs and what the tools you have can do, my view is all bets are off. Tools should work for you, not the other way around. You won’t get any points for being a slave to procedure if your work suffers or you impede someone else’s. (Those are precisely the moments in which managers forget that you’re required to use certain tools and will ask why you weren’t more resourceful.) So indulge in some shadow IT or go outside the systems entirely if you need to.
Note that this doesn’t mean that you should go rogue all the time. If the organization is trying to roll out new tool that requires changing some processes, you have to give it a fair shake. “New” is not the same as “bad.” I’m talking about situations in which a tool you have to use is truly not up to the task and hinders your ability to perform. If you have to choose between a positive business outcome and using a tool the way it was designed, choose the business outcome.
Don’t get me wrong – this can be a painful way to live. That’s why it’s in your best interest to be part of the solution.
Don’t Suffer in Silence – Take the Initiative
Enterprise consultants figured out a long time ago that when lots of people use particular software to do their job, even modest improvements in the tools’ capabilities or how they are used can translate into big operational improvements. The first place you ought to look for pain to alleviate is in your day-to-day job and how you can make yourself more productive or effective. But anywhere you come across processes that seem painful or where people get bogged down in manual tasks, there is a good chance that you’ve identified a case where the tools in place are not up to the task.
Documenting issues and raising them to management is the step that few people, especially new hires take. There’s a big difference between merely complaining and making a recommendation to improve the business though. Here’s how you can make sure you’re doing the latter.
- Communicate the cost of the issue in its entirety - This means looking beyond the inconvenience and thinking bigger picture. At my first company, the immediate pain for me was that because of spotty usage of our CRM tool, I didn’t know which clients were safe to reach out to and which were not. That sucked for me, but the issue I should have pointed out was that the organization was losing lots of information about the health of its customer relationships. That was valuable information that could never be recovered, which is a much more compelling reason for a manager to act than one person’s grievances.
- Show what is being done to work around the problem - Not every problem in an organization can be solved right away, but if you can quantify the cost of the issues in relevant terms (reduced number of customer service requests responded to, average number of person-hours or days it takes to create some important deliverable, etc.), you’re at least more likely to get the response that you want.
- Recognize whether this is a training, configuration, or tools issue – Take a stab at what you think the solution involves. Training issues can be resolved by people using the existing tools more effectively. Configuration issues mean that the tools in place need to be modified to allow for certain behavior that they don’t accommodate currently. A tool mismatch means that you have needs that aren’t being met with any of the tools you have today and a new solution is needed.
Sometimes, the people in charge are simply unaware of the issues, and they happen to be fixable with relative ease. Often, they aren’t, but you won’t get any closer to a better future if you don’t communicate the problem effectively.
If Something Looks Off, Trust Your Judgment
Businesses rely on tools, and for that reason they also rely on people who will find ways to improve them. When you’re new to a company, or to the workforce in general, you’re likely to see people using tools, software mainly, in ways that seem odd or inefficient. If a process looks broken to you, the worst thing you can do is to just assume that it must be that way for a reason. Trust your gut, dig deeper, and see if there’s a way to improve the business. That’s your job, after all.