The Importance of Tools To Product Managers and Other Humans

by nils  - August 20, 2013

In a seminal 1962 paper Doug Engelbart outlined a research program that came to be called “Augment,” short for “augmenting human intellect.” He illustrated the importance of tools to human progress with the following story about the pencil and how society might have evolved without it:

For one thing, the record keeping that enables the organization of commerce and government would probably have taken a form so different from what we know that our social structure would undoubtedly have evolved differently. Also, the effort in doing calculations and writing down extensive and carefully reasoned argument would dampen individual experimentation with sophisticated new concepts, to lower the rate of learning and the rate of useful output, and perhaps to discourage a good many people from even working at extending understanding. The concepts that would evolve within our culture would thus be different, and very likely the symbology to represent them would be different — much more economical of motion in their writing. It thus seems very likely that our thoughts and our language would be rather directly affected by the particular means used by our culture for externally manipulating symbols.

Why do I go on so much about tools? Better tools are key to improved productivity, and productivity is what creates value. All major transitions in human history have been related to new tools.

ABANA style treadle hammer
A treadle hammer, which multiplied the productivity of blacksmiths. When you attach it to a water wheel or to steam power, it helps usher in the Industrial Revolution (image by tmib_seattle, CC 2.0 license)

And product managers are the last group without tools of our own. Everyone else has tools that help them do a better, faster, higher quality job, and that are specific for their needs. Developers? Interactive development environments (IDEs) like Eclipse or Microsoft Visual Studio, plus source code control (SVN or Git), build tools (Jenkins), libraries (JQuery), bug trackers. Engineers? 3D cad systems, finite element modelers. Accountants and finance people? Any number of ERP and backoffice tools. Salespeople? CRM systems like I could go on.

But product managers don’t have tools. Or rather, we have a book-writing tool – Microsoft Word – and a finance tool – Microsoft Excel.

That’s why I spent seven years at Accept, working on a tool for product managers. That’s why I blog so much about tools and why we don’t have good tools (yet). And why I’m so excited to see a number of tools coming to market now and recently.

I’ll be posting soon on another batch of product management tools, all new, that I’ve heard about in the past few weeks, as a follow on to last week’s post about Aha, ProdThink, and The Skore


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Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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