If I Had a Hammer

It is sometimes said that software makes difficult tasks easier. Often the task is difficult not because the problem being solved, or the question being answered, is difficult per se: "I need to know when our users are likely to cancel their membership so we can send them win-back promotions" is a well-formulated, easy-to-understand, bounded question, and the answer is likely to be equally finite and easy to understand. The difficulty lies in gathering, compiling, and analyzing vast quantities of data in a timely, repeatable, reliable manner so that 1 billion data points coalesce into a half-dozen usable pieces of information. That's hard, and intractable unless you can process gobs of stuff really, really fast. Computers, and good software engineers, are really good at this sort of thing, and by and large you can never have enough of either.

All Nails

But a rampant trend in tech companies is the tendency to resort to technology and software to make easy tasks difficult.

Imagine a meeting room filled with 20- and 30-somethings, all endowed with solid educations, a solid drive to do the right things, and the disconcerting ability to explain the difference between TCP and UDP to finance people. The topic at hand: how to foster new ideas, team spirit, information exchanges, the kind of collaborative awesomeness you can sometimes get out of enlightened corporations and smart, enthusiastic people. The conversation might very well go like this:
"How about we set up a wiki page so everyone can contribute ideas and see everyone else's ideas? It's be really transparent and easy."

"Good idea! Once the ideas have coalesced a little, we can use Basecamp to see who's working on what and have real flexibility so new people can jump in and grab tasks they're passionate about without a big formal team structure!"

"Awesome! And since everyone's laptops have webcams, we don't need to have those big meetings--we can do ad-hoc catch-ups over Google Talk without everyone having to be around the office."
Those are all good ideas, and they would probably work for the project you're all working on. But when your entire team is reaching for ways to do things that wouldn't work during a power outage, or were not even remotely possible less than ten years ago, maybe it's time to take a step back and reassess.
"How about we just stick Post-Its on the wall over there?"

I don't believe this kind of tech-centric groupthink arises out of malice or a perverse instinct to complicate--my money is on a combination of habit (we use our computers during most of our waking hours), a tacit post-industrial rejection of the trappings of the Old Way of Doing Things, and recency priming effects (the last thing most people used before the meeting started was a computer program reminding them they were supposed to have interactions with other human beings). All those factors conspire to obscure other modes of communication and collaboration so ancient and universal they simply blend into their environment, devoid of shiny surfaces and sleek contours, waiting to be used.

Tool Envy

I personally don't share the fetishism for tactile, low-tech (and wantonly expensive) implements so prevalent among financially independent Bay Area techies. It's tempting to ascribe this post-modern stylomania to the scribal equivalent of comfort food: in a fast-moving, high-tech environment, non-electronic utensils like #2 pencils and tidy notebooks with elastic bands to prevent intempestive openings provide the stressed techie with a familiar anchor to long-ago times when things were less complicated and responsibilities less burdensome, redolent of chalk and crayons and cookies and blood from one too many encounters with Jimmy the football player now safely stowed away in detention. Or possibly something phallic.

But when it comes to getting ideas, moving them around into thematic buckets, discarding the bad ones (physically!), refining the fuzzy ones, and making them available to everyone, passively visible at all times, omnipresent and inevitable in their glaring obviousness and gaudy magenta-on-high-gloss-white, nothing--nothing--beats Post-It Notes and Sharpies. Even the hard-to-read ones are useful, because they draw you in and make you think about what they might mean.

A Web-accessible company intranet / wiki / bulletin board is undoubtedly a very convenient way to share ideas with everyone--it's dynamic, accessible from anywhere at any time, and does away with any requirements of physical co-presence that the modern office tries so hard to make obsolete.

But unless you're crazy and never close any tabs in your browser, you probably don't have that project wiki open in front of you all the time, and it takes an active effort to be engaged in the project. By contrast, the cadaverous whiteboard and its bright pimply scribbles is both easy to ignore, like a light fixture or a garbage can, and impossible to avoid, by virtue of its large, immovable presence; walking past its hodgepodge of colorful puddles instantly draws your gaze and reminds you there's something interesting going on, without your having to do anything.

As for the additional benefits (constant, virtual availability)--are they solving a problem you actually have? If most of the collaboration happens between people who can reasonably be expected to be in the same place during overlapping business hours most of the time, do you really need 24/7 remote availability of your idea board? And if someone really is available at 3am, maybe what they need is a reminder to go to bed rather than a tool to help them work in the middle of night.

Rampant Complexity

This tendency is hardly the bailiwick of 21st-century internet startups. Take One Laptop Per Child for example: an interesting, beneficent idea, to be sure, but it seems to me investing in mosquito nets, immunizations, education, human rights and safety for every child in the developing world may cost less, be more immediately useful, and go a bit farther than giving a crank-powered Linux computer to a bunch of kids who could really use some clean water and the assurance they won't go blind before they finish reading their first book.

Beyond computers, the 1980s brought tremendous technological advances to musical instruments: synthesizers became mainstream, and piezo-electric pickups made it easy to amplify and record acoustic guitars--so easy, in fact, that the world collectively agreed to ignore their atrocious sound and to forget that sitting down in front of a single microphone really isn't all that hard.

Snatching Simple from the Jaws of Difficult

Note that this is not a paean to the Luddites. My main computer has a modern dual-core processor with obscene amounts of memory and more hard drives than I remember, because larger, separate hard drives mean worrying less about backups; but it's attached to a pair of giant 10-year-old CRT monitors, because the productivity and eye comfort of 3840 x 1440 vibrant, never-stuck pixels outweigh the benefit of lightweight, space-saving LCDs--the last time I physically had to move my monitors was over 4 years ago; space and weight savings are nice to have, but completely irrelevant.

I store recurring shopping lists into my phone (e.g., lists of hard-to-find books for the occasional bookstore trip, just in case), but jot down grocery lists on envelopes out of the recycle bin, because their useful life span (minutes, hours at the most) simply does not justify spending more than a second or two jotting items down. As long as I can scrawl "milk" faster than a phone, computer or PDA can wake up from standby, launch the shopping-list program and fix my virtual-keyboard typos into a sensible word, technology is a hindrance, not a solution. Sure, I could integrate the two lists and sync them to my Google account and set up reminders to buy Kleenex via SMS before I leave the office. But I have better things to do with my time.

Microsoft didn't come up with Sharepoint out of sheer boredom, perversity, or greed. Mailing Post-It Notes around doesn't scale very well if half your team is in Los Angeles and the other half in Manila. Of course technology is the right approach a lot of the time, maybe even most of the time. But if technology is good for many things, it's not necessarily good at them. Weigh the actual (not the hoped-for, or potential) benefits of using one method, against its implementation, evangelism, training, and maintenance costs. Don't pick a solution based on its ability to solve a problem you don't have, or almost never have. The burden of proof is on the complex approach, not the simple one--simplicity should always win unless there's a compelling reason to go the other way.


  1. Indeed. But aren't you the person who made fun of me for having actual paper on my desk?

  2. Possibly, but any opportunity for ribbing is a good opportunity. :)