Tools Don’t Equal Skills – Innovation Requires Learning

Nancy and Kea

When Nancy and I arrived in New Zealand for our honeymoon, we had just started birding. We got to Christchurch and talked to a woman in the Department of Conservation, who helped us plan out a two week trip around the South Island that would help us see kiwis, penguins, kea and all kinds of other great birds. At the end of the trip, we had seen 99 species of birds, and Nancy made me promise that we’d come back.

Three years later, we did, moving to Palmerston North when Nancy was offered a job at Massey University. In the three and half years that we lived there, we traveled all over New Zealand, birding everywhere we could. We saw another 63 species of birds, moving our list up to 162 – which still rates as a pretty good total for New Zealand.

Birding Tools

To see that many birds, in any place, there are skills that you need to build. These include:

  • Bird identification – species that are closely related often look very much alike. To tell them apart, you need to know a lot about the field marks that distinguish them. This takes time, practice and study.
  • Bird finding – you also need to know where to go. This requires knowledge of where the birds live, and how they live.
  • General biological knowledge – all of this is predicated on learning a fair bit about bird anatomy, biology, botany and geography.

Once you get to the right spot, you usually need binoculars or even a spotting scope to see and identify the birds.

Birding in New Zealand

Birding in New Zealand with my $40 binoculars

When birders meet up in the field, we always talk about what birds are around. Often, birders will make a judgment about your birding skills based on what binoculars you’re carrying. The tool is the most obvious proxy for the underlying skills. But it’s a really bad proxy.

This is a common error. People mistake the visible tools for the underlying skills. In birding, this means that people often buy very expensive binoculars as a shortcut to building the skills.

Big mistake. You can buy tools, but skills must be learned. The tools can help you build the skills, but they don’t create the skills. Time and effort do that.

Tools don’t equal skills.

Buying $1000 binoculars doesn’t make you Phoebe Snetsinger. Using a Leica doesn’t make you Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Innovation Skills

And innovating like Steve Jobs doesn’t make you Apple. We see this same mistake in innovation. Innovation is a skill, a habit, a philosophy. There is no shortcut to building the skills that you need to innovate:

Just like birding, getting the right tools can help you build the skills. But you still have to invest the time and effort to learn them.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Tools Don’t Equal Skills – Innovation Requires Learning

  1. There’s probably a corollary to this within every hobby, Tim.

    In the automotive sector, there’s a tendency for those with the means to outright purchase horsepower to equate that performance with their own skills. Do they have skills outside the automotive realm which give them advantage within?

    Perhaps, but there’s a reason the phrase “built, not bought” resonates globally among enthusiasts. Little skill is required to drive off the lot in a 600hp machine. It takes only slightly more skill to buy a 600hp vehicle and write a five-figure check to a performance shop to turn it into a 1,000hp machine.

    At the same time, it’s not uncommon for the built-not-bought crowd to associate the results of their purchasing power in terms of parts they installed themselves as skill. The question then becomes, which is the better metric–a $10,000 engine delivering 12-second quarter mile times, or the $5,000 engine delivering 11-seconds?

    They don’t say practice makes perfect for nothing!

    PS: Still a big believer in your thoughts on divergent and convergent ideation, mate. Cheers.

    • Hi Brian!

      I think you’re right – this is a general issue, definitely not a specific one. Thanks for another example.

      Divergent-Convergent is an idea that I still use a lot too. There’s good research behind it, and just as importantly, it works!

      I hope you’re doing well.