Innovators aren’t just the geniuses who come up with completely original ideas. More often than not, they’re the people who tweak the ideas already around them, making new things that are more useable or beautiful.
In a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research last spring, economists Ralf Meisenzahl, of the Federal Reserve, and Joel Mokyr, of Northwestern University highlighted the historic value of “tweakers.” They argued that the Industrial Revolution took hold in Britain because of “the supply of highly skilled, mechanically able craftsmen who were able to adapt, implement, improve, and tweak new technologies and who provided the micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”
Take, for instance, the spinning mule. Invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779, it was tinkered with by others who added metal rollers, better ways to smooth its acceleration and deceleration, water power and automation – resulting in a machine that efficiently mechanized the manufacturing of cotton.
In “The Tweaker,” a New Yorker story from November 2011, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that Apple founder Steve Jobs, as described in Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011), was “the greatest tweaker of his generation.”
From the Macintosh’s mouse and screen icons to the iPod and iPhone and iPad, “Jobs was someone who took other people’s ideas and changed them,” writes Gladwell. Brashness and grand visions were key: “The great accomplishment of Jobs’s life is how effectively he put his idiosyncrasies — his petulance, his narcissism, and his rudeness — in the service of perfection.”
Companies looking for the creativity of tweakers should be open to finding those brains beyond their borders. Lots of tweakers can be found outside of company walls, eager to send their ideas in. “Users who need a new product often take pieces of things they have around and put the pieces together to do what they want,” said MIT Sloan’s Eric von Hippel in a recent interview with MIT Sloan Management Review.
“A study of British consumers that I recently conducted with Steven Flowers, Jeroen de Jong, and Tanja Sinozic found that 6.1% of consumers in the U.K. over the age of 18 had created or modified a product for their own use within the last three years,” said von Hippel. Details of that research are included in “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator,” by von Hippel, Susumu Ogawa and Jeroen P.J. de Jong.