To tinker with something is to build or rebuild via a process, also known by the French word bricolage. Tinkering involves fiddling with something in an attempt to fix, mend or improve it, especially in an experimental or untutored kind of way.
Most business schools like to build the craft of management into a science. But management theory is just that, despite often being based on rigorous research. When a startup is faced with getting the product out of the door or pulling in the cash, it is more likely that personal, rather than management skills are what count.
Seemingly random and ill-ordered behavior can produce results. The entrepreneur who figures out how to be effective experimentally may not be able to explain how to get there. To the onlooker the behavior may look chaotic.
Chaos looks for order
Although chaos is often thought to refer to randomness and lack of order, it is more accurate to think of it as an apparent randomness that results from complex systems and interactions among systems.
Entrepreneurs are always asking themselves what works, more than checking what the manual says. Their pragmatism is often what makes them nimble when faced with tough situations. That is not to say that they operate without principles, nor that management learning is not useful. It’s just that getting the wash out, is how they survive.
The term ‘to tinker’ is generally applied in a negative sense and implies manipulating something unskillfully. When you are in a startup mode, it is frequently the only way to go, however much good advice and training you have received. You are obliged to make artful use of what comes to hand.
The interesting thing about tinkering is that results often emerge that way. In the French language, bricolage also used to be an unflattering term. More recently it has taken on a much more positive interpretation. French business schools are happy to teach the subject, now a somewhat revered process.
Fuzzy systems reveal what works
This is not surprising because system scientists are now clearly believe that “fuzzy, messy continuously exploring systems bent on discovering what works are far more practical and successful than our attempts at efficiency.”(note 1) This is just like messy human thinking that is full of redundancy or playful, messy enterprises.
The interesting thing about tinkerers is that while they do have skills, they generally lack a formal plan. We have all learned how important a business plan is supposed to be for the entrepreneur. A business plan is what most intending startups aim to produce, but there’s no great evidence that extensive planning is the key to success. Amar Bhidé, a Columbia University entrepreneurship professor, found that 41% of Inc. magazine’s 1989 list of the 500 fastest-growing private firms did not have business plans. When I started my own business in 1982, we had a plan, full of charts and tables and stuffed with good intention. Eighteen months after launch, the situation looked very different.
However, a sense of direction added to the ability to find utility in unusual places may take your further quicker. This sense of direction or intent is what makes the difference. Tinkerers generally work with intentional passion and since they do not have all the answers, they are very happy to ask questions of themselves and others.
Questioning is a natural habit of tinkerers
Why is it that tinkerers learn so quickly? The lack of a plan produces a way of working that is not based on assumptions and is full of questions about why things are so. Propositional thinking is about keeping an open mind and being comfortable with sometimes contradictory information. More naturally we use what is known is personal construct theory, which is about making good predictions based on prior knowledge or experience about what someone will do when confronted by new situations. Prejudice, in other words.
Ori and Rom Brafman in their book Sway (note 2) say, “It can be as straightforward as coming up with a kind of self-imposed ‘waiting period’ before making a diagnostic judgement.” If someone is playing that role with you, then “the dissenter, of course, is as likely to be wrong as anybody else, but the discussion of the points made by the dissenter can add to the debate.”
Chris Argyris, the business theorist, says that when we approach a problem, we begin with real data & experience, the kind that would be captured by a movie camera. We then choose a set of selected data & experience that we pay attention to. We affix meaning to this selected data & experience, develop assumptions, come to conclusions, and finally develop beliefs. Beliefs then form the basis of our actions which create additional real data & experience.
Argyris also developed the concept of Double Loop Learning-we learn on learning; in other words we tinker. It’s a matter of taking nothing for granted. Entrepreneurs do that naturally and that is why so often they get labeled as disruptive and not doing things by the book.
Strategic tinkering is sequential and iterative
To be successful, tinkering is not a random activity, but one with a natural sequence. Almost paradoxically it is used by entrepreneurs in a strategic way. The first step is diagnosis; what’s the problem? The second step is to develop guiding policies; what’s the direction? And the third step is a set of coherent actions; what makes sense?
These three steps are how Richard Rumelt (note 3) describes strategy. But it’s not a once and for all process. We need to keep repeating the exercise. To survive, we must adapt. Adapting means change. But not change for the sake of change. Rather, it’s a matter of being open to how things work out and revising the plan to keep things moving towards the intended result.
1. Margaret J Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers in A Simpler Way, Berrett-Koehler, 1996
2. Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, Sway: the Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Doubleday, 2008
3. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Richard Rumelt, Crown, 2011