You’ve probably heard the saying, “when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This applies to organizations in numerous ways, such as:

  • Relying on one approach such as training, coaching, meetings, or imposing rules as the go-to answer to just about every problem (regardless of the problem)
  • Looking for the latest “new and bright shiny object” or trend to solve problems (flavor-of-the-month)
  • Focusing on symptoms instead of root causes

When taking such approaches, organizations get caught up in superficial solutions and a neverending fascination with tools. In other words, they focus on how to go about solving a problem instead of determining exactly what they’re solving for. In order to find sustainable solutions, we need to reverse this approach. We need to determine if, in fact, it’s actually a nail or something else like a screw, thumbtack, piece of tape, or block of wood. To do so, we need to emphasize the “what,” not the “how.”

Hammers vs. Nails

Organizational “nails” often get reduced to generalizations, symptoms, or assumptions. For example, a need for leadership development, issues around diversity, or challenges with turnover or production.

As those issues like those are reduced to nails, the organization whips out its go-to hammer and starts whacking away. The hammer could be implementing training, hiring a consultant, or imposing rules and policies.

The same approach can be used when creating new programs or initiatives. People get excited about using the latest trends such as personality assessments like Meyers-Briggs, processes like Lean Six Sigma, or management approaches like “Who Moved My Cheese?” and try to incorporate these “hammers” into organizational training. The hammer then becomes a toy that doesn’t even need a purpose – it’s just fun to swing around. These hammers aren’t necessarily bad – they just not might be the right tool for the job.

Beginning With the End in Mind

The key to creating change is to identify what the “nail” actually is using approaches like research, analysis, and/or dialogue. This helps uncover what it is that we’re trying to solve for. We need to answer questions like:

  • Is there really an issue? And, if so, is the issue actually what we think it is or something else?
  • What is behind the issue?
  • What are people’s challenges in dealing with the issue, and what do they need to solve it?

Asking these questions helps reveal the true nail. For example, instead of leadership development, the “nail” could be about limited access to career development resources. Issues around diversity might actually be about fear of conflict rather than getting more facts or tools through training. Production problems could be related to outdated technology versus people needing to work harder. Through deeper inquiry, we might realize that the nail is actually a staple, screw, or splinter.

Now that we know the “what,” we can figure out the “how.” Instead of relying on our trusty hammer, we can use the staple remover, screwdriver, or pliers to solve the problem more quickly and effectively. The same principle applies when creating programs, training, or initiatives. By knowing what outcomes we want (based on our “nail”), we can incorporate the right approaches.

Expanding Our Toolbox

Knowing the “what” opens up endless possibilities around the “how.” We can use creative, customized, and tailored approaches instead of off-the-shelf or one-size-fits-all solutions. The more tools we have at our disposal, the more options we have to solve the problem.

Organizational “nails” are rarely as straightforward as a screw or a tack, so they typically require multiple tools. Sometimes those tools are used simultaneously, sometimes in sequence, and sometimes they’re all rolled into one. Sometimes we need to invent new tools. The bottom line, however, is that once we know what we’re solving for, we no longer need to rely on or force the hammer. By expanding our toolbox, we create solutions that produce impactful, dynamic, and sustained results.

When emphasizing the “what,” not the “how, some questions to ask might be:


  • What are my go-to tools?
  • What tempts or distracts me from getting to the “what” and causes me to get sidetracked by the “how”?
  • How can I incorporate more tools into my toolbox (or, even better, collaborate and leverage other people’s tools)?
  • What indicators tell me that I’ve discovered the true “what” around a given problem?
  • What are some current situations in which I’m too focused on the “how” without being clear on the “what”?