The Strategy of Treating Everything as a Nail

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Perhaps you've heard of the "Law of the Hammer". It's an expression that says that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

On the surface, it makes sense to rely most heavily on your greatest strengths. If you are smarter than most, it makes sense to rely on your intellect. If you are an excellent marketer, it makes sense to solve business problems with great marketing.

The problem with such thinking is that there is no such thing as a "generic problem". Each situation is different. Some problems are difficult, or even impossible, to solve by means of your particular strength. When one sees a room of hungry people, an excellent cook should rely on his strengths. An excellent accountant, on the other hand, may need to think beyond his understanding of spreadsheets.

Even the famous Hercules, a man renowned for his great strength, discovered that not all problems should be solved with his muscles. In deed, when completing his legendary labors, he relied upon intelligence when posed with complex problems. When faced with the duty of cleaning the Augean stables, rather than picking up a shovel and using his brawn for years upon end, he thought about his problem and simply diverted a river to clean the stables for him.

Similarly, when faced with the Lernaean Hydra, a many-headed serpent that grew two heads whenever one was cut off, Hercules realized that force was not the answer. In fact, attempting to attack the problem with brute force would only make his problem worse. His victory was only assured by means of strategic thinking. He understood that it would be necessary to use fire to burn each wound upon decapitation, to prevent two more heads from growing back. It was only by intellect (and not force) that he could ensure that his foe would not become unstoppable.