Old Tools, New Tools

When is settling for pretty good more productive than aiming for something a whole lot better? I think about this quite a bit as I go about my work life. It’s not just that aiming for perfection is often counter productive, but that a restless insistence on finding new ways of doing old things tempts us away from the less exciting work of getting stuff done. This is the siren song of innovation: innovation is essential when it comes to solving problems we don’t know how to solve, but what about when we already have tools that work okay? Should we go all-in using existing tools, or mess about making better tools, using time and money in their development?

This is not an academic question. Donors have to make these decisions every time they write a request for proposals, program designers make these decisions every time they write a strategy, and administrators make these decisions every time they decide to create a new tracking template rather than use the old one a predecessor left in the shared drive.

I think we probably all have a tendency toward either using what works or inventing something new. Back in the day, most people were probably content using a spear to hunt mastodon while that one guy was spending too much time messing around with a far-fetched idea for a bow and arrow. The spear-wielders probably brought home more meat than the tinkerer did in the short-term. Maybe the tinkerer’s family even went hungry while he tinkered, and the kids were reduced to eating bugs and tree bark. But eventually (whether in our fictional tinkerer’s lifetime or generations later) the bow and arrow brought a greater return on investment than the spear.

Spear wielding is honorable and productive, but we live in an age that worships invention of the new-fangled bow and arrow. Most of us are and should be spear wielders. I am one. When I look at the problems I aim to solve (these days, for me, that means increasing contraceptive access in Nigeria) I see an array of proven spears laid out in front of me. I’ve tailored some of these spears myself, so I know their heft and how they will fly. They have drawbacks and flaws. But if I use them well and patiently, I know what kind of return I can expect – and it’s a pretty good return.

There are people and organizations who are driven to develop the new, and leapfrog the old, because the new irresistably calls to them. I admire them, and I hope I’ll never be too old or inflexible to try a new tool that works better than the one in my hand. But if we all run off inventing bows and arrows, who is left to use the spears to hunt the mastodon to feed the family? It isn’t a rejection of the promise of technology to say that a family’s hunger for food now (or a community’s right to clean water, bed nets, and contraceptives) demands that we invest adequately in feeding the family now, with the technology we have, while setting some of those tinkerers free to innovate wildly and – hopefully – produce exponentially more food in the unknown future.

Any organization will have a mix of spear-wielders and tinkerers, of people who maintain the memory of what has been done and what works, and those who brashly go off creating a new, uncharted way that may or may not pay off. We need each other. What we don’t need is to turn one sort into the other sort, to force spear-wielders to tart up their old ways to make them look new in order to seem worthy, or to force tinkerers to promise us they’ll never fail to bring home the mastodon. They will fail, often. We should be waiting for them back at the camp fire with a big plate of mastodon brought down with our trusty spears, until the day that new bow makes the arrow fly true.


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