Our unreasonable hope that software tools will magically save us

Manager: “Corporate mandates that we now use tool XYZ for doing one of our tasks.”

Employee: “Ok, what is the reason? And what is wrong with what we are using right now?”

Manager: “We’ve not been achieving our goals and this tool will help us improve because it will connect all of our departments. It has so many features. Life will be great.”

Employee: “Ok, seems interesting but also very complicated.”

Manager: “Yeah, you will receive training, don’t worry. We will be able to use the tool to its fullest extent, every single feature! Life will be so great after we migrate everything from our old tool.” 

Who hasn’t had an exchange like that? If you raised your hand, congratulations! I envy you. For all others, I know how it feels.

It seems like there is a dedicated (software) tool out there for each and every business problem you can think of. Then there are those tools that connect the specialized ones. Finally, there are the tools that include everything. 

All of these have a reason for being and many of them are extremely helpful and successful. However, I feel like their impact is overvalued. Or maybe, to put it better, I think they are misused. Far too often is some new license for a tool purchased because “we are not meeting our targets”. The hope is then that the tool magically solves everything. 

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
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Software tools are great – but cannot solve all problems

Don´t get me wrong, many of these tools are fantastic products. I use a wide variety daily (Jira, Confluence, Roadmunk, Productboard, GitLab, Salesforce, new relic, Tableau to name a few). You will find avid fans for each one as well as people who hate every aspect of them. For me, they are a net positive and make my work easier. 

However, I generally believe we over-rely on tools to make us more effective, efficient, productive, or whatever other term you can come up with. The problems start when we immediately begin by looking for tools to fix some sort of issue, without really understanding the root cause. 

The tool is then a band-aid that addresses a symptom of a larger, underlying issue. This may work (really well) for a time. Over the long run, however, the problems will resurface. 

Tools – and to an extent this is true for processes as well – are in my view the cherry on top of a solid foundation. The foundation consists of a company culture, team spirit, communication, skilled employees, appreciation, organizing yourself, and more hard to grasp concepts. 

Unfortunately, most of these are very abstract and cannot be solved by deploying a new software tool. Fixing issues within this foundation is hard work. It’s much easier to simply present a new tool “that will make us successful again”.

It starts with leadership

It is obvious that we need to have a proper foundation in place first. As it seems to be so often, the key to this is deliberate leadership – unfortunately a very fuzzy topic that software tools cannot really address. 

Leadership is not easy! There is a reason why so many books, courses and coaches on the topic exist.

Still, emphasis needs to be on getting this right. Start with the culture, with communication, with visions and goals, with leadership. If you are thinking about the importance of this, I strongly believe you are already ahead in the game. 

Thinking about business this way is the point. Even if we don’t have perfect leadership, it’s important to simply be aware that any tools or processes can likely only be the cherry on top. They have the greatest impact if the foundation is solid. 

Be deliberate in choosing

When you start with the software tools instead of the foundation, you end up having a great looking roadmap, where all items are connected to your project management system. In the end, I would bet a lot of money that you will not deliver as needed and end up with frustrated employees as well as unhappy customers.

I am not trying to discourage the use of tools. I am trying to encourage you to be deliberate and aware. Deliberate in choosing tools and aware that all tools can help greatly, but also that they will not solve all the problems you have.

Think hard about the problem you are trying to solve, understand where the problem originates, and then pick something that really helps you with that. Many of the tools out there have a seemingly endless list of features and integrations that are not likely needed for your specific use case.

It seems we get extremely excited by all those features that we likely don´t need. It’s probably related to human psychology. My best guess is the more features we use, the more we have the illusion that we are in control of a chaotic environment, and that we are doing the right thing. It’s easier to satisfy the tool than to think deeply about leadership, communication or how to evolve the product vision.

In my experience, it makes sense to focus on a few core features and then gradually use more – if they help. More often than not, it seems that many features cause more work than benefits. There is a reason why some of the simplest tools seem to be the most enduring.

Old School

Speaking of simple tools, why not ditch software and use your hands at times? Being old school can sometimes have some really nice unexpected effects. 

There are instances when the best tools are some pos-its, pens, and a whiteboard. I realize that – in this remote world – the situations when this makes sense are increasingly rare. However, whenever possible I enjoy using them. 

I am not sure why – maybe it’s simply because your brain is forced to think differently – but it seems like we always get some interesting results using the most basic of tools.

An invite to change the thinking

That might actually be the core message of this text, thinking differently and reconsidering our notions around software tools. 

I hope that this edition of The Backlog causes you to take a step back and think. Instead of blindly going for the newest, hottest service when confronted with a challenge in daily business life, take a step back and deeply consider the origins of the problem. Consider what exactly it is you are trying to solve and if that may be caused by a weak foundation. 

In case you are not the person making the decision on which tools to use, remember that leadership can also come from those who are not – on paper – in leadership positions. Asking questions about a new tool with the goal to deeply understand the problem it is supposed to solve may, by itself, be enough to cause the needed deliberation. 

Deliberately choosing the tools as an add-on to an already functioning base is the way to achieve the best outcome. And if nothing else helps, try sketching your thoughts out on a piece of paper and see what comes of it.

Coverphoto by iMattSmart on Unsplash