Try tinkering for a change


There is no doubt that the Industrial Revolution propelled England and subsequently the rest of the world toward unprecedented social, cultural, economic, and environmental transformation. What prompted such dramatic upheaval? When most of us think of the Industrial Revolution we think of it as a sudden break; a series of rapid, sweeping changes triggered by a combination of new energy sources, new scientific discoveries and new technologies.

But the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in a day, and it wasn’t based solely on new discoveries that immediately upended everything that came before. As my historian husband recently pointed out to me, the insights achieved by Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and other scientific geniuses had limited direct impact. The real "geniuses" of the Industrial Revolution were tinkerers—men and women who made incremental improvements on existing technologies based on a trial-and-error approach.

My husband mentioned this because I've got tinkering on my mind.

I keep getting the sense that we live in a culture that's infatuated with extreme, all-encompassing changes. Whether it's in our organizations, businesses or our lives, as soon as we get the feeling that something needs to shift, our minds quickly jump to grand ideas of disrupting the status quo in some major way. It's as if there is only one kind of meaningful change --  the dramatic kind that tries to annihilate the “old” by installing the “new.”

The problem, however, is that significant changes often require a considerable investment of time and energy. They also often create a lot of additional work and waste, and they present daunting obstacles. And while occasionally a radical change is precisely what is needed, I'm convinced that, in the vast majority of cases, such overhauls merely displace old dissatisfactions onto novel situations, rather than generating genuinely new outcomes.

Many years ago, while I was conducting field research on what happens to cell phones and laptops when we throw them away, I found myself interviewing a man who worked on repairing such devices in a poor neighborhood of Accra, Ghana. As I watched him work, he suddenly turned to me and said, "You Westerners. You always want the next new thing. You have no patience with repairing. You don't even know how to repair things anymore. "

This comment struck me, and I have subsequently heard this sentiment repeated all over the world. I read up on the idea that we have stopped repairing our things and found that cell phone repairman’s observations were absolutely right on. Globally, our ability and willingness to tinker is rapidly dwindling. We’re addicted to an “out with the old and in with the new” way of thinking and living.

This tossing out and starting over is problematic enough with "stuff. "But what about in our lives? Is it sustainable and efficient to keep looking for the next new radical thing? And do grand gestures actually move us closer to what we want?

I have my doubts.

I think we need to be more selective and cautious when it comes to big change.

Instead, I propose we try tinkering more.

It works for kids—just watch them. My kids are always working on something, trying out this and then that, adjusting when they see something doesn't work and moving on to what does. It's like biological evolution in miniature.

And it works for designers. A colleague who is a professor of design recently told me, "This is what you need to understand about us designers. We tinker. We take things into our hands, and we work on them, play around with them. We do this again and again until we get it right."

His comment prompted me to think that it might just work for my clients as well, as they try to change their lives or their companies.

So next time the desire for a major change strikes you, take some time to zoom in on the specific area you are dissatisfied with. If you're itching to quit your job, try carefully parsing your work into those elements that you enjoy and those that you hate.

If you long to move, try figuring out exactly what you want more of in your new place of residence.

If you want to overhaul your company or organization, analyze precisely what is driving this urge.

Sometimes you think you need to entirely throw out your old life and go live in a cabin in the woods. Yet when you break it down, you might realize that adding some more plants to your home, committing to going for a walk in the park during your lunch break, and signing up for some weekend trips might meet your needs instead. These are things you can tinker with and try out before you throw the baby out with the bath water.

In another case, you might be convinced that you want to quit the board of an organization, even though that organization means a lot to you. Yet when you take a closer look, you see that it's just that one, mansplaining, manpeating colleague that you need to shield yourself from. Again, this is a need that you can address in various ways. You can experiment to find out what might work, before giving up on something that actually means a great deal to you.

Tinkering involves incremental, low-cost changes that often give you immediate feedback on their effectiveness. And even if that feedback is negative, you've still gained something: you've found what doesn't work, and this knowledge often propels you toward what does. 

What are some areas in your life or work that you could tinker with?