Maslow’s Hammer

“If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land

I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.”

– If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul & Mary

A lot of people think this song is just a catchy, hippy singalong about peace and love. But I disagree. I think that Peter, Paul & Mary were under appreciated philosophers trying to warn us all about the danger of Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as The Golden Hammer or The Law of the Instrument.

The Law of the Instrument is usually summed up in the following saying:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow

More broadly the Law of the Instrument applies to the idea that as soon as you give someone a tool to use he or she will begin to see everything through the lens of that tool. Immediately shutting out alternative solutions that would not be approachable via the familiar tool at hand.

Examples include medical specialists who will seemingly always interpret symptoms such that they lean towards their own area of expertise, car mechanics who, if specialising in a given part of the car will more often than not come to the conclusion that this part is faulty, or almost any business professional from Lean Practitioner to Systems Architect who will invariably find that whatever ails your company is due to a fault that they have the tools to fix.

In the end, are these people using their tools or are their tools using them?

This should be worrying if you’re either using a lot of creativity tools or processes and even more so if you’re someone who makes a living selling them.

“Just because you’re *allowed* to use magic now does not mean you have to whip your wands out for everything!”
– Molly Weasley in The Order of the Phoenix, chastising Fred and George for overusing their newly gained magical freedom

And if you think about it, isn’t that what Peter, Paul & Mary were saying? After all, if they had a hammer, they said, they’d never stop hitting things. I certainly hope nobody ever gave one to them.

This is why I tell my clients to be very wary of tools. And by tools I mean anything that is designed for a person to use to achieve a certain goal. Tools, you see, can end up using you.

Some things that I define as tools within the world of creativity:

– All idea generation techniques
– End to end creative processes or systems
– Mechanisms for converging around a single solution

I don’t teach creativity tools and techniques as a core part of my business. I’ve actually argued directly against paying anyone to do such a thing. Tools are fine, but we all too often begin with the tools and before long we have fallen foul of Maslow’s Hammer.

And here I am happy to say I can once again join forces with my friend and colleague, David Birss, after last week’s unpleasantness. You see, David has recently written an article on why brainstorms are terrible and we should all stop using them.

He is absolutely right and has happily provided an excellent real world example of what happens when people find a tool they are familiar with and just keep hitting things with it.

They’re much like people who needlessly risk RSI shaking Polaroids. It makes no difference but once the idea is out there it’s hard to dislodge.

Brainstorms are terrible but I would go even further and urge readers to let go of all the tools they use. Or, if not entirely let go, begin to hold them far more loosely.

“My policy is to have no policy.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1865

To bring this to a more personal level, I think we can all remember a time when we’ve learned some new tool or technique and found ourselves endlessly applying it. I recall when I first learned of The Myers Briggs Personal Assessment and took the test. From that moment I became obsessed with understanding myself and others through the lens of this tool.

I had fallen prey to narrow minded instrumentalist and it has taken me years to fully rid myself of its restrictive effects.

Perhaps I’ve convinced you to be less in thrall to tools, techniques, processes and methodologies. What, then, do I recommend instead?

– Get back to basics. If you happen to have a set of tools or a process you follow, put it aside and improvise. See what happens when you go in with no agenda, no techniques.

– Change the situation so that your old tools don’t work. If your tools are dependant on some kind of technology, switch it off. Need to be in the same room? Go elsewhere. Need pens and sticky notes? Lock the stationary cupboard.

– If you must use tools, mix them up as often as possible. Learn new ones all the time and rethink the use of old ones.

These are useful short term fixes but the only sustainable way to avoid being whacked with Maslow’s Hammer is to get past the idea that creativity is something separate from your normal working life.

Creativity happens now – in the moment. It’s not something that lives in workshop rooms or studios, it’s part of life. If you can find ways to increase your awareness of creativity in the moment, become more flexible and responsive just as a part of how you live, then you’ll find that you no longer feel the need to reach for the toolkit and plan a workshop every time a problem needs solving.

“If you put an empty gourd on the water and touch it, it will slip to one side. No matter how you try, it won’t stay in one spot. The mind of someone who has reached the ultimate state does not stay with anything, even for a second. It is like an empty gourd on the water that is pushed around.”
– Takuan, Japan, 1573–1645

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Stepping Stones: a meditation on the nature of creativity

Today's post is very short. That's because I want you to spend less time reading and more time reflecting on what you've read. For the reading allow about 60 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to spend ten times that long, ten minutes in this case, reflecting.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the danger of Maslow's Hammer; the tendency for the tools we use to narrow our perspective and leave us blinkered, rigid, and predictable.

This brings us to the single hardest problem for creativity:

  • We use tools to help us express creativity
  • Over time we get better at using the tools
  • The better we get the more we rely on the tools
  • The more we rely on the tools the worse we get at expressing creativity

In my view it's wrong to think of creativity as a set of skills or tools. I see creativity as a relationship, a way of existing in the world. People who have a strong relationship with creativity are somewhat like children, driven by curiosity, open to change; keeping a beginners mind, ready to receive. Tools can help us to achieve this relationship but they aren't a substitute for it.

Where last week I shared the intellectual basis for this argument, this week I want to share with you a meditation that I find helps me both to understand this idea more deeply and to communicate it more clearly; I call it 'Stepping Stones'.

Stepping Stones

If we want to get to the other side of a deep, fast flowing river, it would be very risky to try to swim unaided! Instead we look for stepping stones leading to the other side.

With each stone we come closer to where we're going. The stones feel solid and safe but the river is rushing past and, with each moment, a stone might slip and we might fall in!

It's wise to use the stones but it's foolish to stand on them for too long. Remember our confidence will only grow until the moment we fall.