How to make your tools work for you

It’s you and your workflow, not the tool

Let’s be clear. There are a lot of really cool tools out there. Both in the Mac App Store and outside of it, there are plenty of interesting tools that may add quite a punch to your workflow. If you get to know them. Intimately. And if you can integrate them in your workflow. Efficiently. So the challenge really isn’t finding that one brand new tool that will make all the difference … it’s integrating that one tool with your current workflow and optimize that flow.

Getting it backwards

Most people get this backwards. I’ve been there, you’ve been there. We get so enthused by this new tool (let’s call it toy, really) that we will find reasons to use it in our flow. This leads to situations where people have 5 or 10 different text editing tools on their laptops. And probably why toolboxes are oh so popular. Look at all the great tools you get for one low price. While really all you need is one hammer. The question is, will you fall for the flavor du jour, or will you act more reasonably and rationally?

Impulse buying

So how do you deal with that call of the tool? How do you avoid spending your money on items which capacity may exceed your needs by 99%? For me there are a couple of steps to go through to avoid those impulse decisions. Because today you may be spending 99 cents in the App Store, tomorrow you may be spending a couple of million USD or EUR of unwarranted expenses on a new IT system. And if you believe there is a significant difference in that spending decision, let me assure you that as a consultant I’ve seen more impulse buying decisions than I ever thought possible … some of those decisions cost quite a lot of money and never even got plugged in.

Steps to consider

Let me take you through a couple of steps which may not be complete, but at least will take you through a process that requires you to do some thinking before buying. This is not the traditional “Wait 30 days before spending an amount” because at the end of the day, if you are really adamant about buying something without a considered decision, you will have a difficult 30 days and then still buy it. At that moment, you’ve not only spent money on something you don’t need, but you’ve given yourself an additional frustrated 30 days as well. Here’s what I think is a considered approach:

  1. First, be very careful in the assessment of the specific need you want to acquire the tool for. Is there a need? What is that need, and is this a real need we have or just an argument we’re using to acquire the tool? It is essential you clearly understand what you want to do with the tool. You need to identify all you want to do, and also what you don’t want the tool to do for you. Then you need to clearly define how the tool will affect your workflow.
  2. Second, you need to identify multiple objective sources of information on the tool. Stay away from commercial presentations, they are likely to try to convince you of the added value of the tool. You will only find confirmation of what you want to believe, i.e. that you need that tool. Check the competition. What do they offer? Interesting to consider for example is that public services are required to have multiple suppliers bid on most contracts they put out in the market. If you assess, assess using multiple sources of non-commercial information. Do call reference users if the supplier provided you with that information, but consider they will likely not provide you with the coordinates of their worst clients …
  3. Once you are clear and the total picture makes sense, also from a cost perspective, make the purchase. This really is about committing to your choice if it has been well considered.
  4. Once you have made the acquisition of the tool, invest time in getting to know the tool. Get to know the tool. No, really, get to know it inside out. Make this an acquisition which will be worth its money. If it’s a large acquisition, make sure your users get the most training possible. Make sure the supplier stays responsible for the training and make training acceptance count. If it is a small tool, train yourself. Get to know all of the functionality of the tools. Use them. Learn all the shortcuts that exist. When you learn those shortcuts and those special ways of getting more out of your tool, be it a hammer or an ERP system, learn them as if you were to have to teach them. It provides you with a whole new perspective on skills or knowledge acquisition. It helps you focus and slow down, which enhances your learning. Once you are clear on your usage and you master the tool, you need to start optimizing full integration into your workflows.
  5. Once you know the tool and its use, start optimizing your workflows. The learning period for a tool should be long enough to achieve good knowledge of its use, not necessarily mastery. This will come with the integration in your workflows. Again, there is a process here. First, you will need to develop a workflow for the most optimal use of the tool in your process. The process really is key here. The process determines both the tool and the way the workflow is structured, not the other way around. Once you’ve done that, you need to work on integrating that workflow into the broader workflow of all of your tools. Again, your process and the desired end result should be the key factor here, not the tools or the workflows. Finally, if you get that right and you feel comfortable with it, you can look at possibilities of integrating the whole in an automation, where relevant and possible.

In conclusion

Tools are tools, but they also put bread on the plates for someone. Those developers will do their best to promote their tools, and so they should. However, you have a mission as well, which is usually not tool testing. Your mission is getting your work done. The best possible way to get your work done is very effectively and efficiently. Not just to do some more work, but also to find time to be able to focus on the essentials of life, such as spending time with loved ones. So don’t go out and buy the next best thing. That’s all the difference between right now and right, period.