Toolbox or tool-maker? - Russell Taplin

My grandad had a tool box. He was always very precious over it and I can still remember him saying “If you borrow anything, bring it back!... Or else!”. It had everything you’d need day to day - screwdrivers to open paint tins, pliers to turn nuts, spanners to lever tyres off, the works! As a kid it felt like a box of tricks. My dad, on the other hand, also had a tool box (and some). He was a tool-maker, a long-lost skill and art from the foundries of old, when wood was crafted to make casts and patterns for tools of industry. There was and never has been anyone as good at woodwork or carpentry as my dad, in my opinion.

My dad was never as precious about his tool box though. His tools were a cut above the rest, they are still top notch today – and my mum reminded him over Christmas that he has to give them to me now he has retired. They will be cherished. He looked after them exceptionally well, and he was confident in them. Rather differently to my grandad’s toolbox, where tools weren’t used for the purpose intended, where they were applied bluntly and without grace - each and every tool in my dad’s toolbox was applied in a specific way with confidence that they would do the job required. If a tool broke or got damaged, guess what, as a tool-maker my dad could make another one. He knew his tools inside out and could craft any tool for any job.

This is of course a metaphor to explain something I’ve observed and come to believe in, having worked in business and alongside business consultants for over thirty years. Consultants love models, they have their standard models and templates they pull out of their toolboxes for each and every client. This of course seems entirely sensible. Models and tools have been built from experience, over time, and it is that experience and toolkit that a consultant is bringing to the party. But…

…The same in, gets the same out. In the last few years, we have all seen the significant growth in start-ups and scale-ups. Their advantage in today’s world is that start-ups and scale-ups really can take on the big brands, by providing new, ground-breaking, personal or artisan services. So, when consulting, why try to use the same models that everyone else is using? Our business, the business we believe in for its differentiators, its uniqueness, is subjected to being thought about in the same way as every other business. By the time it has been through the models, it now runs the risk of looking and feeling like all the other businesses that have been through the same models. It’s a predictable equation, a homogenous mess – and we risk not recognising that because we are just happy that we have a perspective or a solution.

I remember being sat in a lecture room of my alma mater many years ago. I was in the final year of a demanding long haul and there had been a significant drop out rate along the way. I remember being told that those who had dropped out had still the same business models as us, and so we should try not forget the models we had used to get us there – but then I remember being told, very conspiratorially, to completely forget them. The point was that we were supposed to be ‘adding back’ to the business world– bringing stuff that hadn’t yet been researched or thought about – and we couldn’t do that with the same business models that had got us there. Exciting times. We didn’t just have the toolkit, we were embarking on our journey of bespoke business tool-making.

For those of you like me, who have more than a passing interest in business analysis, we’ll get the opportunity to meet and hear from one such expert tool-maker, Dawn Crossingham, at the upcoming StartupU Spring Training 2019, on Friday 29 March. Dawn will be giving us a taster session, running through her own tools, focused on creating a vision for your business growth.

Don’t get me wrong, models, toolkits and standard approaches are entirely valid to help frame thinking and help understanding - but in the world of artisan and personal, which is where start-ups and scale ups win, we should be looking to use bespoke and artisan approaches to help us develop and design our businesses - and most definitely not just using spanners to lever the tyres off.