Innovation Roles – The Tinkerer

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Roles - The TinkererIf 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 Thomas 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.

If you missed the other roles, here are links to them for your convenience:

Next time: The Jester

Editor’s Note: For a look at some team-based innovation roles, check out The Nine Innovation Roles

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

No comments

  1. Hey Jeffrey

    Great article. It’s really interesting to consider that it’s the “tinkerers” that are the source of innovation. The trick is, also, that the tinkerer needs to be given space to tinker. A good example is Dick Drew. This man changed the 3M company. (You can read more at It was Drew that wanted to tinker, but it was 3M’s president that recognised that tinkerers need to be given the freedom to explore, and make mistakes.
    Here are some other innovation posts I’ve written:
    Captain Kirk is killing innovation
    My (rough) Notes on Scott Berkun’s “Lecture on the Myths of Innovation”

    Anyway – I am looking forward to the next article,

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