How To Build A Maker Culture
Matt Webb, CTO at Mirum, describes why we might be looking in the wrong places for innovation
We know the world and tech are changing. Nothing new there. We’re also told that we need “innovators” and to look out for “unicorns.”
In my opinion, though, if you’re looking for these elusive creatures you’re unlikely to spot them, but if you go on the hunt for another species, the makers, you will uncover the unicorns and be in a better place to ride this perpetual change confidently.
Typically, when [insert any large company here] look for innovators, they go straight to the big industry names. Here they uncover highly motivated, creative minded people, who are of course amazing humans.
However, we tend to spend an inordinate amount of time tracking them down. Then, we pay them quite a lot. Lastly, we put them up on a pedestal and give them a badge-of-honor title that basically means “silver bullet.”
Quite often they are full of great ideas, but struggle to think in practical terms or are, in some cases, behind the technology curve. We’re also setting them up for a spectacular fail, unless they have a super strong, multidisciplinary team.
Rather than focus on the role at the top, why not focus on the innovation culture?
To do this, we need to concentrate our efforts on real people, the kind who are already in your organization—though you might not be aware of them—and create an environment in which they can flourish.
I’m talking about the makers. That illustrious group of individuals who belong to the maker culture and who specifically share many of the characteristics of those we call innovators.
Here’s a practical guide on what to look out for and nurture, so you might actually start creating something that simplifies lives and that people actually want.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
People who accept failure as part of the journey
It’s about perspective. Someone who spends an entire afternoon trying to make something that doesn’t work, then categorizes their time spent as ‘a complete waste of time.’ This isn’t a promising start.
Rather, you have to see failure as part of the learning process. It’s a lesson to us all, to use our brains to record information—good or bad—and learn from it.
Are willing to engage with technology, creative and practical
In the old days, I used to talk about how a balance between creative, technology and practicality were the magical components of a maker-unicorn. After meeting a lot more makers, it became apparent, however, that it is more to do with accepting the existence of each of these areas and having a willingness to engage with them.
We’ve all seen designs that can’t be built or systems that have been designed by technologists, and we all know a highly intelligent person that can’t change a mains plug.
There has to be a balance, an understanding. If you are skilled in one, you have to see the value and learn about the other two. You don’t have to be a polymath—just learn, share and ask for help!
Have the ability to get right out of their comfort zone
This isn’t mission impossible but at the same time it isn’t mission slightly difficult. The people you are looking for like being involved in a daunting task and not stopping when the going gets tough.
Similar to accepting failure, but more like accepting a mountain challenge and reveling in it, they understand that to get to the top of the proverbial mountain they’ll need to amass knowledge and experience.
Because of this, they set time aside to learn and to fail. It’s a bit like doing pottery for the first time without having the hands of a master to guide you. You make a mess, and you get frustrated but you persevere. You enjoy the initial uncomfortableness of it all, as it is part of the joy of learning.
The people you are looking for are the owners of ‘what if, can we make it better, I wonder how we could…’ It is easy to chose a task and sometimes it is easy to complete it, but most makers don’t really see tasks as finished. They always think about improving it and seeking different applications for it.
HOW TO NURTURE IT
The first step in nurturing this culture is demonstrating that you not only understand it, but you care about it. Belief and conviction in what you’re doing is key to motivating others in the hunt because it makes things real.
Once you’ve got this in place, you need to coax your talent out the woodwork, which can be harder than you think. A great deal of the makers I have had the pleasure of meeting both inside and outside of my place of work all talk about a time where they were a little embarrassed to share their creations or expected people to find them weird.
It takes a great deal of confidence to unveil something you’ve crafted and spent hours of your precious time on. I am case in point: Despite always being a proud techie and brought up by artists and having always made things, I never really shared them.
In fact it’s only since I’ve had kids that I’ve been able to justify why a techie would spend time on creative projects or non-technical projects or welding. (OK, maybe not the welding.) I finally made a stand as a MAKER, and I am involved in so many innovation projects as a direct result.
Almost immediately after sharing some of the things I have created, people were interested and helpful, and I connected with more of my maker peers.
Once you have some named makers, you need to give them the chance to shine. This can take the form of internal, client work or pitching ideas. But there is a caveat. They need to solve real problems.
Finally, you need to show it is commercially viable to the makers and allow them to do their thing. This shouldn’t be hard, as you have a bunch of multi-tasking go-getters who are willing to go the extra mile. But it’s important that they are thrown tasks that are seen as adding value and are maybe a little bit different from the norm.
In Mirum’s case it is anything that comes out of an innovation sprint. This is where you have your WOW idea, but need to get it to prototype or proof of concept before you get to the minimum viable product stage.
This requires building and creating quickly, efficiently and leanly. Makers are great at this and it goes without saying that the projects where the learning is as valuable as the revenue are the ones to watch for.
I’m hoping I’ve demonstrated that we’re not just talking about nerds playing with robots or something digital, but people who make things with their hands. Shout out to all the makers. The engineers we found in the admin departments, the carpenters in IT and the creatives who code.
Imagine what skills your organization has wasted because people are kept in their silos! Get started by proving you know what Maker culture is and encourage it. Find things to solve—no matter how small or silly, as long as they are real challenges.
Matt Webb is the Chief Technology Officer at Mirum. His background is in usability and HCI, but his remit stretches to ensuring that technology works for the experience, not against it. Prior to Mirum, Matt led the HeathWallace global development team. He has extensive knowledge and experience running accessibility, best practice and IT workshops, and is often requested in situations using his ability to liaise with designers, business managers, technical and business people alike.