This Month’s Pattern *

15 I Gave You a Chisel. Why Aren't You Michelangelo?

The manager buys tools in the subconscious hope they can bestow skills upon the team.

Software tools are often sold by bright-eyed young men who make extravagant promises about the tool’s effect on productivity and the powers it will bring to those who use it. It is safe to say that most consumers see through the exaggerations of advertisers’ promises—effortless weight loss; learn a new language while you sleep—but the ability to separate reality from illusion sometimes deserts harassed IT managers.

These managers are under pressure to produce, and they have too few resources to do so. An automated tool is sometimes seen as a lifeline, and in a giddy moment of desperation, someone overlooks the notion that the tool’s user must have the appropriate skills.

“The cost of a tool is more than the cost of the tool.” —Dorothy Graham

What we are looking at here is a matter of appearances. The presence of tools on the desktop conveys a sense of the developer’s competence and productivity. Yet, the tool by itself does not change anything: Productivity does not automatically increase, the reported error rates stay depressingly high, and morale, discouragingly low. And while the facts say otherwise, the belief persists (somehow) that productivity bottlenecks can be broken open by wielding a checkbook.

Why aren’t you Michelangelo? can be heard in organizations desperate for an immediate productivity gain, and where recruits are hired less for their skills than for the paucity of their salary. Michelangelo organizations almost always have an extensive library of shelfware.

Of course tools are useful, and in the right hands, they bring on wonderful productivity gains and allow things to be done that otherwise could not be done. But as the builder of a tool will tell you, having the right skill to use it is crucial. A chisel is just a piece of metal with a sharp edge until Michelangelo picks it up.

* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.


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