Problem-solving begins with understanding, not a hammer

Posted on May 17, 2011 by Janet Coats

Sometimes, as I’m flipping through my friends’ posts on Facebook, I see a thought or a phrase that sticks in my head.

I had that experience this week, when I saw a post by my friend Nicole Hollway. Nicole is general manager of the St. Louis Beacon, a non-profit online news site, and she’s one of the smartest thinkers I know right now about how local publishers can best engage with their communities.

Nicole’s post read, in part:

“Fail forward fast; empathy in design; tools last.’’

I’ve written a fair amount in this blog about the need to fail forward fast. In the last year, I’ve learned the value of examining what you learn from failure and using it to propel your thinking forward.

The concept of empathy in design is something I’m learning about now, as we are working to introduce a collaboration tool within a journalism community. The tool has been shaped by lots of listening and collaboration with the Journalism That Matters organization serving the Pacific Northwest. I’m sure my thinking about empathy in design is going to grow richer as our experience with JTM.

What really caught my eye in Nicole’s post was this: “Tools last.’’

The temptation is strong to find a tool, any tool, and put it to work to solve a problem. While journalists are particularly prone to giving into this impulse, it is hardly unique to my tribe. I’ve seen it in covering government; I’ve seen it in the philanthropic world during the last year.

The very human desire to fix things, quickly, can work against us when it comes to creating real and lasting results. The tools come last, because what needs to come first is understanding.

We first need understanding of who we are trying to serve and how. When we know that, we need to understand what motivates that community, what its expectations are, how its members relate to each other, what it means to succeed and what it means to fail in serving that community.

We need to be careful about defining scope and we need to be relentless about setting the metrics that will track and quantify progress.

And when we understand all of that, then we are ready to think about the tools we’ll need for the task. It is only with that understanding that we know whether to pick up a hammer or a screwdriver.

In the digital age, when technology seems to leap beyond our expectations almost daily, it is tempting to believe technology is the tool that can solve problems.

But in truth, technology is only a tactic; it isn’t a strategy. It takes listening, learning and ultimately – yes – understanding to build a strategy.

Tools last. Understanding first.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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