Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Innovation Roles: The Tinkerer

If you are joining us mid-stream, I'm writing a series of articles describing the many "hats" that innovators must wear.  In recent posts I've written that an innovator must sometimes be a Matador, anticipating the reaction of the old bulls when you attack the sacred cows.  I've also written that innovators at times must be futurists, decoding trends and understanding how the future will unfold.  Today we'll look at another role that innovators must be able to fill:  the Tinkerer.

What's interesting about this role is that it is often downplayed or misunderstood, much to the detriment of good ideas.  Creating a rough prototype and constantly improving that prototype based on internal and external feedback is the essence of innovation, yet very few firms do this work effectively, if at all. 

Think about Edison for just a minute.  While we have these ideas of Edison as a lonely inventor with flashes of brilliance, that's not exactly how it played out.  Edison was in fact a Tinkerer, and structured his work and his teams to prototype constantly.  His labs at Menlo Park incorporated the latest technologies from several different industries - mining, telegraph, electricity, railroads and others - to ensure cross-fertilization of ideas and concepts.  He encouraged his team to actively prototype ideas to test hypotheses and to learn from successes and failures.

Edison is considered one of the most prolific innovators, and he relied heavily on the concept of rapid prototyping to test ideas.  From those prototypes he learned what would work, and more importantly, what was relevant and valuable to consumers.

As businesses grew, specialization took over and many firms lost the experimentation and prototyping instincts due to a reduction in variances.  Mass production required increasingly efficient lines to create very similar products in large quantities, so much of the prototyping and experimentation moved to the R&D labs, and eventually out the door entirely.  Few firms today have the willingness to create rough prototypes, expose them to consumers for feedback and incorporate those learnings quickly in the final product.  That means that innovators must take on that task themselves.

Good innovators must be tinkerers, building rough and inexpensive prototypes of their ideas to share first internally, then externally to validate the idea and determine the relevance and value to customers.  Innovators that engage customers in this iterative process will learn more, innovate faster and risk far less than other firms that ignore the need for prototyping and tinkering.  Unfortunately prototyping and tinkering are not skills that are widely distributed or well-established in most organizations, so innovators will need to take on these tasks themselves.

Testing ideas by creating rough prototypes will add immense value at fairly low cost, yet this activity has a "craft" or ad hoc feel that doesn't seem to align to modern businesses, much like other important innovation activities like ethnography.  These activities are art, not science, so they don't fit well in corporate America, but are vital to the innovation process.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM


Anonymous John Todor said...

Your metaphors nail some of the issues of innovation, nice post. I do would like to embellish a couple of points. First, on the notion of innovators as futurist. In many cases, the opportunity to innovate comes from detecting the shifts in context that have and are happening. Shifts that change what customers find meaningful and of value.

Second, the notion of tinkering is related to the concept of "enacting" brought to light by Karl Weick in the late '80s. The essence of enacting is that when the world is unpredictable (by old rules) and unanalyzable (by old formulas, one must act to learn. Tinkering in this sense, and innovation, not only applies to things but business dynamics.

John I. Todor, Ph.D.
Alliance for Business Innovation

6:34 AM  
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