Tinkering Can Lead to Creative Insight and Innovation
Tinkering may be a great way to solve a problem, sometimes by accident.
Posted April 23, 2020
Many great discoveries are often made by tinkering. A formal definition of tinkering may imply fixing things; for example, a dictionary definition deems it an act “repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way, often to no useful effect." But tinkering likely has a profound effect on our future thoughts and creative output.
Great inventions can be the result of accidental discoveries, ranging from the creation of penicillin to Play-doh , but these serendipitous accidents are not just lucky breaks. You need to be in the right place at the right time, around the right people, doing the right things, and that is often no accident. Tinkering may lead us down the road to the right places, even if we don’t know it.
Tinker means playing around with things, ideas, and trying out something to see what happens. Often, tinkering is done with some goal in mind, but also sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of trying something out to see what happens.
Kids do it and learn important lessons of life, sometimes by touching a hot stove, or in my case, licking fresh snow off of a cold metal railing (and learning about thermodynamics via a tongue stuck to metal in the winter). But as adults, we might not engage in tinkering often enough, as we are afraid to test something, take risks, and discover what we don’t know — all key ingredients to creativity.
When and Where to Tinker
A great place for tinkering is often in a garage, where we are hidden from the outside world, free of others who may be critical, and where we can try to repair things or build our ideas. As a historical illustration, in 1938, recent Stanford graduates William Hewlett and David Packard needed a place to begin some high-level tinkering, and they found the ideal spot in the garage of their Palo Alto apartment . There, they developed their first electronic device, the audio oscillator. This garage became the birthplace of Silicon Valley.
Tinkering isn’t about making great leaps forward but is more often about refining something that is already good. For example, writers and editors tinker with prose, musicians improvise, and cooks tinker with recipes to arrive at a better result or novel twist.
Finding your mental garage or tinkering studio can be important, so you can find a creative place where you can work out your thoughts and solve your problems. Unlike an office or in front of a computer, people may feel more comfortable in a place that merits tinkering, like a garage, coffee shop or park bench. Some people report their most creative thoughts come to them while in the shower, when swimming, or even while commuting, places where one might not expect bright ideas but rather a recreational/safe place to ask yourself some “what if” questions.
Ask “What If?”
“What if” questions may be the route to innovation. Instead of simply accepting something, asking some critical questions can help one better understand a concept, tests its limits, and find ways to extend it in creative and innovative ways.
What if we did it this way, instead of that way? What if we tried doing this, not that? I call these questions and thoughts “what if tests” or “What If Thoughts” (WITs) as they allow one to both inquire and question why things are done one way, and what would happen if a different approach were taken.
As a professor at UCLA, I always encourage students to ask questions that begin with “What if…”. WITs may not always lead to answers but may encourage people to ask the right questions, troubleshoot, and develop better ways to try to answer the right questions.
Sometimes the smartest person in the room doesn’t know all the answers, but asks the right questions. The business world may embrace “team cognition” as a key mechanism through which cognitive diversity influences team creativity . Team cognition may be enhanced if people begin to ask more questions and not fall into the trap of “group think” or the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.
If you want to encourage creative problem-solving in a boardroom, ask people to do some WITs (what-if tests and what if thoughts) and say them out loud, encouraging diversity in the responses. These questions may lead to answering the important (and sometimes not initially) considered problems that can ensure something is well thought through and presents many contingencies and simulations that could later be considered as futuristic breakthroughs.
Tinkering Leads to Discovery Learning
Tinkering can involve a lot of exploration and trial and error, and developmental psychologists call this “discovery learning." Discovery learning is a form of inquiry-based learning that involves observation and interaction with both problems a set of potential solutions. It can involve a lot of trial-and-error learning.
In an educational setting, discovery learning occurs when students are not provided with an exact answer but rather are given the materials in order to find the answer themselves. The strongest effects are found when direct instruction and knowledge is then tied to discovery learning, linking some learned theory and applying it in practice [3, 4].
In life, we often have problems to figure out, and seeking the right materials or drawing on past experience (wisdom?) may allow us to understand how the solution can be well within our grasp. Discovery learning consists of a loop of four stages: observations, reflections, abstraction, and experimentation. These stages of discovery learning can be applied in a number of settings, but in order to engage discovery learning, you need to start with some tinkering.
Tinkering can be a very effective way to solve problems, come up with a new solution, and simply get lost in thought. Many of these thoughts may not be directly relevant to a problem that needs to be solved, but the product of thinking may come in handy later.
Research shows that there is a period of “incubation” where one needs time off a task in order to come up with effective solutions . Tinkering may be a good way to get away from a nagging problem, but still allow your mind to process things. Mindwandering, which can be both intentional but often occurs without our awareness , may be a form of tinkering that allows you to first get away from the problem at hand, think of some related and seemingly unrelated thoughts, and then return with a fresh and more informed perspective.
Tinkering is not just about our mental thoughts, and often involves a physical component. Children often engage in discovery learning by touching objects (hopefully not the hot stove), and figuring out how things work by taking them into their own hands.
For example, “thinkering” is a word introduced by Michael Ondaatje in the book, The English Patient. It refers to the creation and understanding of concepts in the mind while one is tinkering with the hands.
When we physically engage with things, especially with our hands and through touch, we generate a great variety of sensory images in our minds. We connect our sensory experiences with our mental thoughts and generate visual representations of what is often an abstract concept. These images allow us to better understand our world, and also generate creative thoughts that shape new inventions and ways to solve old problems.
Summary: Stocking Your Mental Toolbox So You Can Tinker
You don’t need a garage, or a set of tools, to tinker. Let your mind work out something by being creative: Reflect on something, extract some key themes, and then let the experimenting (tinkering) begin.
Many of these “thought experiments” may not yield immediate results or interpretable findings, but they will allow you to have some important “What If Thoughts” (WITs) and generate key questions that need answers. And the next time you observe a situation or problem, these simulations that you have run in your head may come in handy, after kicking around in your mental toolbox.
1. Loria, K. (2018, April 4). These 18 accidental and unintended scientific discoveries changed the world. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/these-eighteen-accidental-scientific-disco…
2. Aggarwal, I., & Woolley, A. W. (2019). Team creativity, cognition, and cognitive style diversity. Management Science, 65, 1586-1599.
3. McDaniel, M.A., Schlager, M.S. (1990). Discovery learning and transfer of problem-solving skills. Cognition and Instruction, 7, 129–159.
4. Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15, 661-667.
5. Ritter, S. M., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2014). Creativity—the unconscious foundations of the incubation period. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 215.
6. Seli, P., Risko, E. F., Smilek, D., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Mind-wandering with and without intention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 605-617.