When it comes to problem solving, what's your Handy Hammer?

A few years back I started experiencing excruciating pain in my right shoulder. It rapidly got worse and worse over a couple of months to the point that I could not move my arm enough to unbutton my own shirt without the pain causing little tears of pain.

It was at that point -- being a stubborn kind of guy -- I finally relented and went to see a doctor. We'll call him Doctor A, an orthopaedic surgeon.

After a cursory inspection, in which he asked a couple of questions about my sport and gym habits, and manoeuvred my arm around in [expletive-laden] wide circles, he concluded I needed surgery. "When are you available for that?" he said consulting his calendar.


This was all a bit sudden for me. I wasn't ready to go under the knife yet. So he showed me a video of a baseball pitcher throwing the ball. I was never going to be first-draft pitcher for the New York Yankees anyway, so I didn't really see the relevance of that as proof of my predicament. "Lie down on the bed, we're going to operate now," seemed to be his message.

So he then sent me for a wildly expensive MRI scan. As he viewed it on his monitor, he nodded his head sagely: "Yes, yes, we must operate. When can you come for the operation?"

I explained I had a busy travel schedule, but in any case was there no alternative to major reconstructive surgery? "No, no, come on, lie down." (I was by now getting the feeling he was already dreaming of his next holiday in the Maldives with the proceeds of my operation.)

He write down his professional diagnosis, and I again asked him if there was no other approach than surgery to explore a solution. He gave me a withering glance as though to say, "Look at my certificate on the wall, I've been doing this for 20 years, now please lie down on the bed so we can chop your shoulder apart."

What I did next was this: I took his diagnosis, and Googled it, which is what you should never do because then usually you are convinced that you are going to die within days from flesh-eating microbes which have crawled into your ear and are now chewing their way to the centre of your cranium.

But ...

In this case, the Google search revealed that in at least one third of cases, relief could come in the form of a single cortisone injection (for the shoulder, not the brain-eating bugs).

So I went to another hospital and consulted Doctor B. I explained to him the results of the MRI and the diagnosis. He listened carefully, nodded sagely, and gently moved my right arm in painful arcs. "Are you a swimmer?" Yes, until recently swimming 1 to 2 kilometres before breakfast was part of my daily routine. "This is also known as 'swimmer's shoulder'," he said. Oh! So? "You could try reduce the pressure on the tendon, maybe lose some weight." We discussed my dietary intake.

He was not recommending surgery yet, he was exploring other less radical options from the solution field first.

So I asked him about the cortisone injections I'd read about. "Yes, they can be helpful, but usually only for 3 months at a time. We can try that if you like?" He jabbed two syringes into me, one into the joint socket and the other into the shoulder.

"How soon before I feel any benefit?" I asked him.

He grabbed my arm and swung it around in a full circle. I felt no pain. Relief was immediate. I buttoned my own shirt back up, and left. "Don't forget, try to lose some weight," he repeated and wished me well.

Three months later, the familiar twinges of pain started recurring, then disappeared just as suddenly. And since then I've not had a moment's pain in it. That was 9 years ago now.

So what can we learn from this?

It's called 'THE HANDY HAMMER'.

Sometimes the more deeply experienced and specialised we become in business, the more we develop narrower views on what the solution is. And with more experience that often becomes even narrower, until we can only think of one solution.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said it best: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

And that's the Handy Hammer. Your Go-To Tool. Doctor A's handy hammer was his scalpel. He was trained to use that, and he possibly used it well. But it shut down his ability to think more holistically of my problem and possible solutions.

As a CEO (and hello to our valued CEO readers) your handy hammer to increase profits might be "cost reduction."

As a brand marketing executive your handy hammer might be "20% off" discounts to spike sales.

As an PR person your handy hammer might be "email a Media Release" every time.

So, here's what I'd love you to do next ...

Grab a tea and coffee and reflect on whether you have a reflexive reaction to situations and challenges?

What's your Handy Hammer?

Sometimes it's painful to surface it and realise how narrow and habitual your solution-finding has become. But, as professionals, we all develop behavioural ruts, especially if those solutions have worked for us in the past.

The problem is when the business conditions change, when technology changes, when our competitors change, that may not the the most impactful and effective solution any more.

So, put down that hammer, and step away from the desk.

If you're lucky like me, your results will be immediate.

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