Kristen Cooper: Tinker, test it, talk about it, then teach it

Keywords In the Workplace

Tinkering frees your mind. It gives you confidence. It opens the headspace needed to perceive the inconceivable. It helps to remove the attachment you have to something you don’t need anymore. I remember the exact moment I learned how to tinker. Admittedly, I was a bit of a late bloomer.

In my early 30s, I was participating as a Big with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. My Little and I were taking a painting class at the Indianapolis Art Center. After we spent nearly two hours concentrating on detailed self-portraits, the teacher jumped up on a crate in the center of the room, commended all of us for our work so far, then said, “I want everyone to load your brushes with lots of paint. Now, let your arm go and paint a giant streak across your canvas.”

“Do what now?” I said in sheer disbelief. He walked over to me, showed me how to load my brush, then mimicked how he would run the paintbrush across my self-portrait. Without hesitation, and with deep trust in my teacher, I followed his instruction. My portrait now had a giant streak of green paint across it. He was thrilled. I was exhilarated and thoroughly confused.

Together, we started painting tall cornstalks in front of the face, similar to the ones in the background. Only a tiny part of my face peeked out from this beautiful field of corn. The painting became so much more interesting. This art teacher got me to think about backgrounds, foregrounds, line, abstraction, depth and color values in ways I could not have imagined on my own. This tinkering experiment changed how I operated in the business world.

Tinkering was easy. The benefits were many. The deep focus required by tinkering often displaced fear and anxiety. You’re constantly learning something new. The hard part was accepting that it was OK to break something. Although, what you discover through tinkering is greater than whatever version currently exists. This is a discipline that is particularly important for women to adopt.

Recently, while interviewing a candidate for an open digital administration position at The Startup Ladies, I met a young woman who reminded me how society teaches women to learn. Women are generally not encouraged to break things and put them back together again. They’re not encouraged to tinker.

In her case, she had graduated from college and went so far as to take a few online tech courses. She shared her dreams of making apps and websites and using SEO to reach customers. I asked her what she had started creating on her own and assured her it would be exciting to see whatever she was playing with as a newbie. Unfortunately, she said she hadn’t created anything yet.

She admitted that she just didn’t understand how important it was to start tinkering on her own. She thought that taking some classes was enough to prove she could do a job like this one well. It was as if she needed the permission, structure and incentive from someone else to motivate her to tinker.

As much as I enjoyed meeting her and knew she would get along well with our team, she wasn’t hired. When someone on our team hits a process roadblock or tech obstacle, the first thing we ask one another is, “What’s the workaround?” Nine times out of 10, one of us has to research a solution, create something, test it, then share what does and doesn’t work with the team. When the team listens to the solution, someone often has an idea to refine it further.

Navigating and succeeding through the process of tinkering and finding a new solution wins high praise on our team. That’s because, through tinkering, you learn a process well enough to teach it to others. That makes individuals quite valuable to a team. Managers have the power to create a culture that encourages and rewards tinkering.

When you find yourself tinkering on your own without any prompting from management, it could be a sign that something you once found to be good enough is no longer satisfying. Instead of falling into a state of frustration, pause and have awareness of what you feel, then start noodling on something. That curiosity might turn into a hobby. The new experience you gain might turn into a promotion or new job. Or maybe that solution you discover will become your new business venture.

Tinkering comes in many forms. After taking a class, try to replicate what you learned. Pull a piece of paper out of the copier and draft your idea with straight lines, triangles and boxes. Arrange all of your kids’ stuffed animals in the format of a new workflow. Write a humorous post using a new word you just learned. Create a slide deck resembling what the process would be if a user were clicking on an app. Disassemble the Sony Walkman in the thrift store pile just to see what that magical 1980s music box looks like on the inside.

Don’t wait for somebody else to figure out what you are perfectly capable of figuring out on your own. It’s good for the brain and self-esteem and, in the case of thousands of founders, could be very good for your bank account.•

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Cooper is founder and CEO of The Startup Ladies.

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