It took a long time, but it had to happen. Finally, there are schools, summer camps and weekend experiences where kids learn how to tinker. This is far from what some call “futzing around” and others label wasting time. It’s serious business.

Tinkering was once a valued profession. Adept at analyzing and solving problems, tinkerers tackled anything that needed fixing. They were skilled problem solvers who figured out what was wrong with equipment and machinery and fixed them, as well as found ways to improve their performance.

John Graham

Tinkering is anything but a lost art. Spotting and dissecting problems and coming up with workable solutions is an enormously valuable business skill — one that requires a lot of tinkering.

At its core, tinkering is getting things right before we make needless costly and perhaps disastrous mistakes. It’s all about insight and creativity. And here’s what it takes:

1) Nothing is ever good enough. Tinkering is the attitude ‘good enough’ doesn’t cut it. Whatever it is, it can be better, whether it’s writing a letter, email message, report, memo, proposal, or presentation, dealing with a problem, responding to inquiries, answering customer concerns, creating a sales plan, or understanding prospects.

There are no exceptions. Good ideas fail because they’re rushed and not thought though. Proposals are rejected because they are superficial. New initiatives are quickly abandoned because they’re full of holes. All are victims of the pervasive get-it-done and out the door mindset.

2) Take on challenges. The one opportunity that overshadows everything else in any job is routinely ignored or passed up. And that’s taking on challenges, which is a code word in business for solving problems.

If you ask most people to spell challenge, they’ll say, “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.” They run the other way from challenges, avoiding them at all cost. As they see it, challenges conger up images of long hours, too much work, getting blamed and failing. Just say the word and they run and hide behind claims of being too busy or having to walk the dog after work.

That’s all good news because it opens up enormous opportunities for those who dare to raise their hands and say, “I’ll work on that.”

3) Get to the bottom of things. Understanding how things fit together, making connections and uncovering what’s missing goes beyond superficial and incomplete answers. Many of us think that may be a good idea, but it takes too much time, so why bother. And that’s why “Googling” is the accepted standard for research. How many of us are interested in knowing whether something is fact or opinion? How many know the difference or even care?

The New York Times Magazine described how Kent Clizbe, a former C.I.A. officer and intelligence contractor, went about the arduous exposé of a daring media con man as “an unrelenting compulsion to get to the bottom of things. … He has a perpetual need to turn everything inside out.”

Tinkering gets us to the bottom of things, and that’s what it takes to innovate, break down barriers and make a difference on or off the job.

4) Stop making mistakes. Is that too much to ask? Of course there are “circumstances beyond our control,” but most often, mistakes result from moving too quickly.

Steve Jobs tapped Ron Johnson to develop the now wildly successful Apple retail stores. Then, based on this success, he was picked to work his magic on saving the legendary J.C. Penney stores. Instead, he unleashed tornado-like disruption and was quickly blown away.

Now, Johnson is launching a new venture and told USA Today, “The mistake I made was trying to change things too fast. I’m going back to what I learned at Apple, which is that there’s no such thing as an overnight success.”

No one wants to make mistakes, yet they still happen. New executives arrive, for example, with a, “Here’s what we’re going to do to make us successful” message. This is always a mistake, because this is the time for tinkering, for learning how the place operates, spotting problems and coming up plans for improvement that brings everyone on board.

“The mistake I made was trying to change things too fast,” is good advice.

5) Take control. Those who practice the art of tinkering know its secret. They’ve learned how to take control of their lives. They don’t cower, complain, or quit in the face of the endless obstacles they face every day. They’re always looking for ways to make something better.

  • Amazon makes customers happy with earlier than expected deliveries
  • Honda Civic created excitement with a complimentary pair of quality, limited edition driving shoes with each new Civic
  • A Sunoco service station makes follow-up phone calls to customer after working on their car
  • A medical office amazes patients with its “no waiting” policy
  • A company CEO knows the cleaning person’s name and always says hello
  • Granite Telecommunications’ annual “buzz cut” fund drive for cancer raised $4 million in one day

What does it take to make good things like this happen? Just a little tinkering and asking one question: “What if we …?” Every company needs tinkerers — the more the merrier. They get a kick out of making the place better.

To encourage tinkering, it might be a good idea to give a “Tinkerer of the Month Award” and share tinkering success stories. At a time when so many workers feel undervalued, we should let them tinker and see what happens. It just could be the way to turn a lot of minds into suggestion boxes bursting with new ideas.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access

John Graham

John Graham

Graham is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer.