The power of tweakers

(Note: This piece directly builds on ideas explored here, then here, and then here).

In the last three posts, I tried to explore how not enough radical innovation is happening, leading to an unhappy state of growth. One of the ways out of this is better utilization of the existing IT infrastructure. In other words, exploring the product and idea space around existing information technology capabilities.

Let’s look at some of the ideas in this context.

In this paper, Roberto Verganti and Don Norman argue that design driven innovation can lead to radical innovations by re-interpreting what technology means. Some of the examples they offer are worth exploring.

As expected, Apple comes as the first example. From the paper:

Apple’s development of multi-touch interfaces and their associated gestures to control hand-held and desktop systems is one of today’s radical innovations. However, Apple did not invent either multi-touch interfaces or gestural control. Multi-touch systems had been in computer and design laboratories for more than 20 years, and gestures also had a long history.

Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point regarding Apple in this piece for the New Yorker:

Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him—the tablet with stylus—and ruthlessly refining it.

The economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr coined a term for such people – ‘the tweakers‘. Tweakers do not make great inventions, but they refine existing ones – and this can lead to significant economic growth. They even assert that without these tweakers, the inventions would be meaningless:

At the same time, “great inventors” without the support of high-quality competence, were equally doomed to create economically meaningless curiosa (of which Leonardo’s myriad inventions are just one example).

After the example of Apple, Verganti and Norman point out that:

Edison did not invent the light bulb; he improved the existing bulbs by extending bulb life and, equally important, he recognized the importance of providing all the necessary infrastructures. Edison brought into view all the system requirements of generation plants, distribution systems, and even indoor wiring and sockets to hold the bulbs. Thus, his efforts revolutionized the product space and the living and working patterns of households and businesses.

I think these examples are enough to convince us that we need designers and product managers to push on radical innovation through design – to push productivity growth. We need to think of technology as the key ingredient of products, and not just a flavor added on top of current ones (like [x] but now with AI).

I will investigate some concrete ideas to do this a later post, soon.

One thought on “The power of tweakers

  1. Pingback: Zero point five to one – Curated Intelligence

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