A PM’s Toolbox Tour: Treasure Chest or Pandora’s Box?


So.  It’s the end of the week and I’ve shown you mine, now let’s take a look at yours!   Is your toolbox a treasure chest full of bright, shiny, valuable tools or is it more like Pandora’s Box, full of unreliable, outdated, more-trouble-than-they’re-worth tools?   Lowe’s Home Improvement has some good advice on the question: “If you use a tool often, sharpen it often.”    It’s pretty easy to agree that maintaining your tools (vs. fixing broken ones) is necessary if you want to get the most from them; the trick is taking the time to do it.

First, what is it that needs maintenance?  There’s the toolbox itself (the collection), the individual tools in it and YOU (remember “You are the most powerful project management tool you will ever use” from Monday’s post?).  Setting aside a specific time to inspect and adapt all of these is important; think about the following when considering when and how to do it: 

  • Do I have the right tools for doing my job; is anything missing?
  • In my toolbox, what’s the balance of quality to quantity?
  • Do the tools I have work correctly?  Are they limiting? Could they be improved?  How?
  • Do I know enough about the tools needed for other work I want to pursue?   Do I need tools to help shape what’s emerging or support my assumptions about the future?
  • Am I purposely ignoring anything?  Why?  What does that allow me to do?
  • What’s the risk in not answering these questions? 

For your tool or personal retrospective, what other questions could you ask?   It’s not just about doing things right, it’s also about doing the right thing. 

Here’s one way I do tool maintenance; it’s more about being alert to possibilities than about being reflective.  Whenever I come across an interesting question, concept, methodology, quote, website, etc. that might be relevant to something in my toolbox, I make a note of it, in a special file if I’m online or on 3×5 cards if I’m not.  Then, just about once a week, I find an hour or so in my schedule and go through everything I’ve collected.   Sometimes I do a simple update and sometimes I do research, but I process everything one way or another until I run out of time. 

This series of blog posts has served as a very public retrospective of my toolbox, and pointed out some interesting observations: 

  • There’s nothing specifically about leadership
  • There were some great responses to my informal project management survey on essential tools that didn’t clearly associate with anything in my toolbox: baking skills/home-baked food, informal meetings over food, be willing to fill gaps, ability to manage interrupt-driven work/attend to things now, do people favors, PMBOK formulas
  • I spent more time and looked more closely than usual at my toolbox because I intended to explain it to others (easy learning here: review toolbox with others!)
  • There’s surprising overlap with my Facilitator’s Toolbox 

The next step is to think about each of these points and take action as needed.   For example: Right off the top, the food-related items reminded me of the pattern “Do Food” in Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising.  I’ll look into why patterns aren’t in my toolbox. 

You can help.  What have you observed about my toolbox?  How is it different from yours? 

Here’s a final thought on tools from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” 

How do you relate that idea to your PM toolbox?

Ainsley Nies


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