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.

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One Response to Tinkering is good; but it is not necessarily innovation

  1. Peter Ried says:

    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.

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