Tinkering is good; but it is not necessarily innovation


Bruce Kasanoff (from Opportunity Shaper, Now Possible) just wrote a blog article called, “Why Tinkering Around is the Key to Success” It’s on linkedin.

He starts the article this way,

"Here is a quick way to judge whether your company will continue 
to be successful: can you tell your CEO that you spent the morning 
tinkering around with an idea? If the answer is yes, you are in 
good shape. If no, start looking for another job.

Successful companies know that the path to innovation isn't 
a straight line. Profitable growth is a messy, roller-coaster 
process that involves almost as many setbacks as victories. 
If you succeed in everything you do, you aren't aiming nearly 
high enough.

I get frustrated when companies talk and talk and talk about 
innovation, while simultaneously making it nearly impossible 
for their employees to tinker around. Tinkering is what drives 
innovation, not talking."

There is much that I agree with in Bruce Kasanoff’s article, but there are some big disagreements as well. In the spirit of lively conversation, here are my comments:

Bruce Kasanoff, you are correct. There are a few reasons why tinkering is so valuable: (1). You allow your brain to enter another state of being – it’s not linear, driven, goal-oriented. If you learn to recognize that “creative/tinkering” brain-state then you can enter it more easily and on-demand. The ability to move into and out of states-of-being is very valuable for serial innovators. You need to learn to develop that skill if you want to innovate reliably. (2). Developing your persistence ‘muscle’ is also vital to innovators because innovation generally takes effort and you cannot cave-in at the first obstacle. There are lots of reasons why innovators need to persist. It is a basic characteristic of great serial innovators.

Having said that, I think the reasons that “people miss your point” is that you state a few opinions too adamantly and apply your opinion too broadly. For example, you state, “Successful companies know that the path to innovation isn’t a straight line. Profitable growth is a messy, roller-coaster process that involves almost as many setbacks as victories. If you succeed in everything you do, you aren’t aiming nearly high enough.” Well, this can be true, but doesn’t have to be true. It is not a universal “Truth” about innovation. It is only a seemingly true point in certain situations. Innovation certainly CAN happen in a straight line.

The more you know what you are trying to achieve and the greater facility you have with your innovation process, the more direct your path to an inventive solution will probably be. Straight is good, too, just as tinkering is good.

Profitable growth does NOT have to be messy or involve many setbacks. If you succeed in everything you do, that does NOT mean you are not aiming high enough. What it can mean is that you are aiming really high and you will persist until you succeed and you will get there without a lot of setbacks because you understand your innovation process. Innovation is developing into an applied science; it’s much better understood than when Edison tried a 1000 times to develop the light bulb. You can still invent using a “messy, setback-rich” way, but you do not have to.

Tinkering is great! But so is driving straight to a solution. Tinkering is not the only path to real, breakthrough, unique, mind-blowing, paradigm-shattering invention.

The author also says that sometimes companies “abhor the idea of tinkering around with a product, service or process. To them, it sounds amateurish…” so be it. If that is your company, embrace it. Innovation DOES NOT need a special kind of environmental support system to work. It is not very useful to rail against imposed constraints. Innovation is a process inside a human head. That is all you need. I guarantee it!

If your company does not support tinkering then innovate another method to produce inventive progress. Do it in a non-tinkering manner. Do it in a way that the company will value. Use the constraints of the system to help you. If you have a methodology for innovation (yes it is an oxymoron), then the constraints within your environment will actually help you invent better, more useful, cost-efficient, timely, and impactful solutions.

Comment (2)

  • Peter Ried| January 6, 2014

    I appreciate the differing points of view. It suggests to me that what Bruce and Scott are describing is a continuum of innovation – not polar opposites – of process, environment, and product/outcome. Let me request examples/case studies reflecting both perspectives – the messy tinkering and the straight line approaches, with or without real or perceived constraints.

    • daynah| September 9, 2018

      Ooh, nice insight, Peter. There is no doubt that tinkering puts the mind in a different state, which is really good for innovation. And you are correct in that this is all part of a continuum, not a “this OR that” condition. Very nice re-frame. Okay, say you are tying to figure out a safer way to make sure people on the construction site always unplug the saw before changing the blade. In a tinkering state of mind, you start touching the saw, pretend to be sawing, imagine it is raining on the job site, think about everyone bugging you to get your job finished so they can get started on their part… you whip the extension cord, wrap it up a bit, shake it out, stretch it as you walk back and forth to where the blades are stored, heft the saw, you fuss with the bolt (tightening and loosening it) with the two wrenches, you run your finger over the dulled saw points, you… tinker … then you notice that the cord is not quite long enough to stretch to where the new blades and tools are stored. So you create a “stand” where you can put the saw to change the blade. You tinker around until the saw will only fit on the stand if you unplugged it. But the cord keeps falling and that is irritating, so you put on a “cord catch” so the cord won’t get wet or fall. You tilt the stand so the saw is easy to get on and off, the bolt is restrained in one easy move. Now you only need one wrench instead of two AND it the bolt is easier to access and now it is actually easier to get the blade off and the new one slotted into place. You keep tinkering until the stand is very portable so you can keep it near you as you work and it even stores an extra saw blade and the wrench underneath so they are easy to get at but didn’t shift, fall out, or get in the way. Now you actually save steps and time, and the work flow is easier, and it is impossible to change the blade while plugged in. Yeah for tinkering! Now an innovator might approach it using a more structured approach. They would map out the system (they could do this in their head or on paper) input drivers, outputs, super system, subsystems, etc. Figure out why people do this activity despite all of the safety training to the contrary, even when they know better. What resources are involved in the harm (sharp blade, turning, electricity, feeling pressured to hurry up, site conditions, waste in the process -extra steps, two wrenches, etc.. They examine basic assumptions: when you want the blade tight and when loose, when the electricity must be present and when it can’t be. the inventor thinks about the space, the time, the conditions, and the parts and whole. They know the human brain works in certain ways for different people (some don’t like to be interrupted in the middle of their work, subcontractors might not have the same safety training…), then they invent a way that it would be impossible to change a blade with electricity on and they would solve the other underlying problems. Or, they would invent a stand that used the electricity to loosen the bolt quickly and completely safely, capture the bolt, perform the exchange with an easy winding motion, then use the electricity to tighten the bolt again. The safety is built in because no hand can get near the dangerous parts when the blade is being changed. It depends on how ideal you want to go. You could also make a stand that resharpened the blade every time the worker set the saw down to measure or do another part of the job so that the blade never needed to be changed all day long.
      The inventive approach can be done quickly or slowly and in depth. For example, both the tinkering scenario and the inventive scenario were inventive thought experiments done as I sat to write this. In actual fact. I didn’t get up and actually tinker. Granted, the solutions are not necessarily complete, but they serve the purpose of being an example. Right?