129 • That's how many apps companies were using on average by 2018, based on data from Okta. We're now using so many tools to get our work done that we have to use other apps and services like Producthunt.com just to comb through them all and find the ones that work best for us.
Finding the right tool for the job isn't a decision to make lightly. The apps that support your day-to-day work can either limit you or enable you to be even more productive. They're part of everything you have to do, from onboarding and training new people to creating content and analyzing performance. Picking the right tools and getting the most out of them will always be high priorities on your to-do list.
In this article, we're going to discuss types of tools, evaluation criteria for selecting tools, and some candid thoughts on the subject. This post is part of a series about how we can reduce duplicate tasks to focus on more meaningful ones, and ultimately become more effective at achieving our business goals using the XRay method. If this is the first time you're hearing about the method, you can read our original post here which gives an overview of the concept.
Tools fall under several categories:
We can use these categories of tools to build a holistic picture of what any given workflow looks like. For example, at Checkmate, we would: 1. Sign a contract using Docusign (Communication), 2. Set up a shared folder structure in Google Drive (Performance), 3. Book onboarding meetings with the client through Google Calendar (Time), and 4. Automatically send an invoice via Quickbooks (Finances). Keep in mind, a brief survey was the trigger for those actions above.
Regardless of the tools we used, tasks like signing a contract, sharing a folder, setting up a meeting with the client, and sending an invoice are all things that are essential towards business operations, but none of those tasks are actually generating mindfully created human value. They are simply setting stage to be able to generate value. Tasks like these are just the work between the work.
These are the tasks that unnecessarily distract you and your staff from doing the things they actually need to do to transform value into revenue. The work between the work is mundane; it's procedural and always seems to be done a little bit differently each time. For the most part, these can be considered Robotic Tasks. They do not generate value by themselves. If you're opening up Calendar, email, or Docusign, those tools themselves are usually used for non value-creation activities (i.e. just keeping someone informed, filing something away, updating a metric). When dealing with these tools to assist with Robotic Tasks, it's best to find tools that are connected to broader automation platforms like Zapier.com, Integromat.com, Automate.io, or Tray.io. There are a ton of different services out there that offer similar functionality.
For the most part, these are your creative tools. Value Creation tools can be things like using Adobe Creative Cloud to create media, or using G Suite apps to make presentations and strategic documents. The exact software will depend on your industry and department, but no matter what field you're in, there are always software tools that you use to create value. Depending on whether you offer products or services, those may be totally different; in some cases, the same tool might be non-value creating for one firm, and value creating for another. The point is the same. Be aware of what tools create value for you. If you're an accountant, Quickbooks is a value creation tool. If you're an artist, it's not.
Value Creation tools are the tools that you use to do the work you are explicitly paid to do.
For example, at Checkmate, software design was one of our main service offerings. That sort of work gets done in Figma, Adobe Creative Cloud, or ProtoPie. It takes thoughtful, creative, and focused time from employees. It wouldn't make logical sense to say a robot could design a UI/UX for a not-yet-designed startup product. This is why that software can be called Value Creation Tools. They let us create value that otherwise wouldn't exist. They deal directly with our real work — the things we were explicitly paid to do.
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One of these is easily changeable, but the other is not. Non-Value Creation Tools tend to be much easier to replace in the grand scheme of things. It's why companies like Monday.com can blast you with an ad on every YouTube video you watch. The world knows Trello isn't the best tool, but it's good enough to get you in. The question is whether it's good enough to keep you there, or if your operations, templates, assets, and workflows will get too advanced to practically use such a simplified tool. I don't have the answer, but your CEO or COO probably does, or at least an opinion.
Tools are created in the first place to solve a problem. Project Management Sucks? Use Basecamp. Your apps don't talk to each other? Use Zapier. Apple Calendar is just too clunky? Use Woven. Often, you're dealing with scaling problems. You need a tool to do something because it would be harder to do it the 'old way' — the way that worked when your business was smaller. Sure, you could manually send out email campaigns and keep track of the results. Or you could just use Reply.io. Your choice. But the tool should be a reflection of the Business Process that the tool is required for. If a tool isn't required to complete a Business Process in the best way possible, then it deserves the axe 🪓.
A hammer doesn't make the carpenter. Whatever tools you use, they don't define you as an operator, manager, or do-er. In my experience, it actually doesn't matter what tools you use, so long as the processes you conduct can efficiently create value. That being said, some tools have terrible UX, some tools don't have an API yet, and some tools are inferior to others in certain aspects — all of that is subjective, but of course I have my favorites. Many of them are sprinkled here.
But if you're using Trello and WhatsApp to run your agency right now, more power to you. Once you have 50 people, expect that to be damn near impossible. Don't buy into the sunk cost fallacy; tool selection is something that should be done as needed. Selecting a tool should have a specific purpose and either replace an existing tool or create new value internally or externally. Too often tools are adopted just because they're 'too cool' to ignore, giving the slower adopters of your team whiplash as they try to keep up and learn something new.
Ideally, you should have a process for rolling out new tools to a test group of people before you bring the whole team on board. That way, you can work out any issues or even decide not to use the tool at all without being too disruptive to your business as a whole. This was something learned the hard way.
List all of the tools that your company uses. Yes, all of them. You may have 129 of them (hopefully not, but you might). Think about all the tools needed to create value doing whatever it is you do. List them somewhere, and I assure you - if nothing else, it will help the next person you onboard understand what tool you're going to use to do the next job.
Now that we've covered tools, we'll be looking at how your tools connect with your business processes, and how you can reduce the number of Robotic tasks that you and your employees are doing manually.