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What's a 'Tooligan'?

Updated: Mar 4

How often do you find yourself falling in love with a tool and then finding a problem so that you can use it?

Whenever I learn something new, I often want to go and try it out and test it on the peeps or systems that I work with, so I start with the tools and look for a problem.

I see this in many organisations and teams that I have worked with. 

I was talking to a friend the other day about a group of people I was working with. I was expressing my frustration about the number of tools they used that didn't seem to solve any problem but were just there for the sake of a tool. 

"Ah," he said, "Tooligans!" 

"What? "I asked 

"Yes, 'Tooligans'! They have a problem, so they buy a tool or implement a new tool to solve it. But sometimes they don't understand the real problem and if the tool will solve it." 

"That's exactly it!" I exclaimed, "Tools are everywhere, and the problems are still there." 

As humans, we are innately tool makers and users. Tools can help us express our ideas better, allow us to create beautiful things and solve real problems.

How do we know we have the right tool for the job? 

How do we know that it will solve the problem for us? 

How do we know if it will improve things or have the opposite effect?

We might want to ask a different question: What tools must we use to apply our practices effectively? And from there, the next logical question is, what are our practices? What are the things that we do to get things done around here? 

This is a great question, but probably not the first one to ask. How will we know what we do is getting us what we want?

Practices (what we do)

Tools (what we use)

Before deciding what we will do, we might want to ask…

What are the principles that are important to apply to get work done? What do we want to leverage to reach more of what we value? 


Human work systems behave in specific ways, and some patterns and levers influence how a system works for better or worse. Principles remain true regardless of context, so understanding which principles can be leveraged can help shift a system positively. 

And so before we decide how to shift the system, we must understand what we value and want more of. 

Deciding on what we value can help us understand what to optimise for, for example. We optimise for speed because we think that will enable us to get 'X' done faster. 

This brings us to possibly the first question we want to ask: "What are the system's needs? Or what problems are we solving here?" 

When we look at things this way, we use a model that I love, The Spine Model.

The Spine Model encourages us to start with understanding the system of work and the Needs of that system or the problem we are trying to solve. 

It asks us to identify what we Value and what we want to optimise for. Once we know what we like to optimise, we can look for Principles and levers that apply. If we're going to optimise for speed, decreasing work in progress will help. Or using Work in Progress limits will have an impact. 

Once we know what we value/want to optimise and what principles are necessary, we can decide what to do. What Practices will we use? Then, finally, we can choose the tools that will support all of this. 

Let's walk an example through and see. 

Problem: A team is having trouble keeping track of their busy work. They don't know who is busy with what and where it is in their process. It also takes a long time for things to get delivered, and they don't know why. They want to be able to see what is going on so that they can make improvements and be faster. 

Needs: Visibility of the work and the process of how work flows. 


  • Transparency

  • Speed 

Principles : 

  • Visualisation of the work and process to create transparency, 

  • Work In Progress Limits to help with speed and delivery, 

  • Feedback loops to help with improvements and alignment

  • Metrics to know if improvements are happening

Practices :

  • Visualise the work and the flow of work 

  • Get together daily to sync, Weekly to plan, and every two weeks to improve

  • Measure lead time and cycle time and look for improvements

Tools : 

We have many options now, but using a checklist for our practices and principles can help us decide and ensure that the tool gives us everything or as much of what we need as possible. We can also start very low-tech with a physical board or wall if we are collocated with something fast, cheap, and effortless that we can iterate over instead of something rigid, expensive and challenging to implement. 

“If you want a straight spine, you have to start at the top, at Needs and work down iteratively. This will keep your spine straight.” The Spine Model

I have seen so many organisations do the opposite. They start with a tool (Jira, Pivotal Tracker, Microsoft Azure, etc.), and then that tool defines their practices.

Those practices shape the principles that apply and determine what optimisations are possible. More often than not, the original problem remains, and sometimes, the cycle continues with the following tool. 

“The value of the Spine Model is to enable thinking and communication, not orthodoxy or even heterodoxy.”  from The Spine Model.

The Spine Model can help us put our critical thinking hats on and ensure we are solving the right problem. It's about communication and shared understanding, which can save us time and money on useless tools and unsolved problems in the long term. 

When I find myself being a "tooligan", I remind myself to begin with Needs. What problem am I solving, and is this the best fit? 

So next time you find yourself in a tool debate with your team or colleagues, remember the spine model and ask yourself, "Where on the spine are we? And can we go up a level?"

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