Home The Right Tool for the Job: Beyond the Golden Hammer

The Right Tool for the Job: Beyond the Golden Hammer

Introduction to cognitive biases in decision making

Most of us aim to use the right tool for the job, navigating the balance between tried and trusted methods and the allure of new solutions. This balance is often skewed by cognitive biases, leading us to favour familiar tools or be dazzled by new technology.

The golden hammer

Sometimes we can rely too much on familiar tools, trying to adapt the problem to the solution, rather than the other way around.

This cognitive bias is known as the golden hammer, often also called The Law of the Instrument. Attributed to Abraham Maslow, the saying goes “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (paraphrased).

I’m sure we’ve all worked with people displaying this type of cognitive bias, and no doubt most (if not all) of us have been this person at some time or another. But for a completely made up example, someone insisting that jQuery is still the best approach to front-end in 2024 is almost certainly a wielder of the golden hammer.

The phenomenon is well-known; in fact, like most cognitive biases, it’s ingrained in all of us, so the challenge is more to learn when to embrace it and when to recognise that it’s not the right approach, rather than trying to convince ourselves we are above such things.

The concept of the golden hammer isn’t confined to technology and engineering; it’s prevalent in creative fields too. An example can be found in ‘An Evening with Kevin Smith’ (2002), where Smith shares his go-to recommendation for any role: Ben Affleck. Whether it’s Daredevil or even Jaws 5, Affleck is his golden hammer.

⚠️ Warning: Explicit language in clip

Ben Affleck is Kevin Smith’s golden hammer

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Smith; many directors have their preferred actors, like Tim Burton’s frequent collaborations with Michael Keaton and later Johnny Depp, or Christopher Nolan with Cillian Murphy. It highlights how comfort and familiarity can influence decision-making across different contexts.

Introducing the platinum hammer

The perhaps lesser-known counterpart is the platinum hammer. Unlike the golden hammer, which leans into comfort and familiarity, the platinum hammer is a different cognitive bias, in which we convince ourselves that the latest, greatest, shiny new thing is the solution to every problem.

In 2024, we’re all no doubt being subjected to daily messages from people telling us that AI, and more precisely their AI startup, is the absolute best solution to your problem. Even if your problem is unclogging cat hair from your vacuum cleaner, they’ll no doubt try to convince you that AI is the right tool for the job.

As it happens, AI does actually have broad applications, and is making a significant impact in many industries. But there are still people trying to force it to solve the same problems they were trying to solve with blockchain a few short years ago.

In my line of work, I most often come across the platinum hammer in two groups - salespeople and engineers.

The platinum hammer in sales

I’ve seen salespeople emphatically convince a customer that the latest WidgetX5000 is absolutely the very thing to cure all their ills, often when it’s completely unrelated. Arguably in this case it actually could be considered the right solution, given that the problem is the salesperson’s need to meet a quota on WidgetX5000 sales. Convincing yourself of the absolute certainty of the suitability of a product or service is an effective strategy for pushing it out the door. But it doesn’t bode well for long term customer relationships.

The platinum hammer in engineering

Engineers can also often be easily distracted by the latest tech. After all, who doesn’t want to play with a shiny new toy? I’m not beyond this myself - I can think of times where I’ve been excited about a new technology and convinced myself it was the right approach. I tend not to though as I naturally gravitate toward the simplest possible solution, and I’m also fairly risk averse, so while I’m often excited to try a new thing, that usually means in a sandbox rather than in production.

I have, however, worked with people at the other extreme - people who always insist that the new thing they want to work with is the solution to the problem. These people are usually senior or influential and therefore get taken at their word. Clients or other stakeholders trust them, and juniors lack the confidence to challenge them.

It’s important to watch out for this, but also to handle it appropriately. This is never done through malice. It’s a cognitive bias, which means that the person peddling the idea genuinely believes it’s the right thing. And, of course, direct confrontation is rarely an effective remedy (it’s absolutely necessary in some, rare, scenarios, but this isn’t one of them).

Nailing the balance: counter-bias strategies

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to get swept along in the enthusiasm; this is part of the nature of charisma. And other times, it can be painfully obvious that this person is drinking their own Kool-Aid. I’ve found though that a simple approach tends to be best in these situations. Just ask the question:

How many projects have you used this on?

This simple but powerful sentence packs quite a punch. There are several possible outcomes. The first is that they may in fact reveal that they’ve successfully used the tool, technique, or product in question to great effect on projects they have delivered. In which case, great! It’s proven. Or they may say “well, none, but…”. And at this point it’s up to them to convince you (or the product owner) that their recommendation is correct. The product owner may ask for alternative, proven recommendations. On the other hand, if the product owner is convinced, the team gets the opportunity to try the new toy. Either way, it’s now with full disclosure, and the risk is out in the open for the team or product owner to accept.

Fostering mindful decision-making

The platinum hammer an important cognitive bias to watch out for, because it can come for any and all of us. But there are plenty more. I highly recommend the book You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. In fact, I regularly re-read it, and it’s a staple of my gift roster. It’s the one book I think everyone should read - it’s like the missing manual for your brain, and will help you recognise many common cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies in yourself.

Arming yourself with this knowledge can be an invaluable tool, in work as well as in the rest of your life.


The golden hammer is well known, but it’s just one of several cognitive biases we need to watch out for. In this post I’ve introduced the platinum hammer, a commonly seen but lesser discussed counterpart. What are your strategies for dealing with this? And what other cognitive biases have you learned to watch out for and counter, either in yourself or others?

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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