To tweak or not to tweak… that is (not!) the question

Forbes has some interesting commentary on Steve Jobs and whether Malcolm Gladwell (yes, him again) is wrong in calling Steve a “tweaker” and therefore less of a visionary or “true” inventor.

One Forbes article argues that Gladwell gets Jobs wrong because Jobs went beyond tweaking, and no inventor really starts with a clean sheet of paper.

Another Forbes article cautions against viewing Jobs as just a tweaker, that is, don’t assume his “editorial sensibility” implies that innovation should be cheap, easy, incremental, and not involve any serious invention.

Obviously, we believe there’s more to all of this. Given our experiences, here are some of our thoughts —

  • Jobs and other great inventors/innovators do build on others’ work, whether sequentially or concurrently (i.e., architecting an ecosystem by bringing players together – see for example what we’ve been doing with printed novel electronics and with content-centric networking).
  • Regardless of how you may define the approach – to tweak or not to tweak – a key attribute of Jobs’ approach was focusing on the human aspect of the technology interaction and context. In other words (as our social scientists like to say): it’s not just about the technologies and how people use them, it’s about people and the technologies they use. A subtle nuance, but it makes a difference. So the key differentiator for Jobs and other successful product players is in not focusing on focus groups, but skating to where “the puck was going to be” by using a deep understanding – of what people don’t know they want – to get there.
  • This is where an approach like ethnography [pdf download] can help: it moves companies from not just “solving the problem right” (e.g., tweaking to a better version of a hot sexy mobile phone), to “solving the right problem” (e.g., launching such a phone with an app ecosystem that fundamentally changes the structure and economics of the industry). By capturing what people actually do, instead of just what they say they do, ethnography uncovers and reveals what people really need or want…even if they don’t know it. And you don’t have to be a visionary with a clean sheet of paper.
  • As we’ve shared before, companies are no longer inherently structurally limited in their innovation opportunities. Because the framework of open, collaborative innovation enables them to innovate beyond their comfort zones and existing infrastructures to together create new things that people use… and enjoy!

For us, at the end of the day it’s all about use: by companies, by people, in the world.

Additional information

Focus Areas

Our work is centered around a series of Focus Areas that we believe are the future of science and technology.

Licensing & Commercialization Opportunities

We’re continually developing new technologies, many of which are available for Commercialization.


PARC scientists and staffers are active members and contributors to the science and technology communities.