Law of the Instrument & the Birmingham Screwdriver

There’s many a tough buying environment in solution sales.

An incumbent promises their client that they can miraculously morph their offering to encompass the ‘new’ which you promote.

You’re experienced at conjuring bespoke answers yet the appeal of a cheaper yet inferior delivery ‘off-the-shelf’ holds sway.

You solve a problem you know they have, yet they refuse to acknowledge whilst they chase lesser, perhaps even irrelevant, issues elsewhere on which they’re already ‘working’.

I was reminded of this lately when a client asked me if I could help with something outside the scope of our previous successful work together.

Although an attractive project, I felt compelled to play the correct card. Despite having an interest in the field, it wasn’t really my core competence. I said no. (As is my pattern).

To explain myself, I even evoked the fabled law of the instrument;

if my only tool is a hammer then all my problems will be nails

I often like to cite this. Especially as long ago my home town was the world’s first ever industrial city; Birmingham. As wikipedia reveals;

The English expression “a Birmingham Screwdriver” meaning a hammer, references the habit of using the one tool for all purposes, and predates [other possible origins of the law] by at least a century.

(NB the destructive long-handled screwdriver shows that the unlucky implement can get a bad rep).

I’ve known of this since childhood. In my very first salesroom – in Birmingham, it must be said – it was an expression used on occasion. And we were selling computers (aka generally tin or if servers, a box) and enterprise-wide software back then.

In the trio of examples given up top, in each case someone tries to justify their way of doing something a touch different as the optimum approach, despite on the surface feeling tenuous.

One facet of this ‘sledgehammer every time’ of relevance to us, is that we are effectively pitching the supersession of the old tool they use with ours, which is a new tool.

As with selling anything’new’, this requires a particular, specialist approach.

The old tool is not the optimum tool. Not any more.

Which is why I applaud the IT construct of the golden hammer. A pejorative term suggesting you avoid; “a familiar technology or concept applied obsessively to many software problems”. Take out the word software. Swap in one from your own field. Plaster it on a slide…

Software developer José M. Gilgado recommends opening yourself (and your buyer) to alternative arguments, broaden the choice and “to keep looking for the best possible choice, even if we aren’t very familiar with it” for the best answers.

Which of your prospects could do with understanding that?

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