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The limitations of ‘jugaad’

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Where the enterprising fix-it spirit works, and where it does not.

The spirit of jugaad is reflected in the practice among many hawkers across India to use parked cars to vend their wares, merely shifting them to another vehicle when the others leave.
The spirit of jugaad is reflected in the practice among many hawkers across India to use parked cars to vend their wares, merely shifting them to another vehicle when the others leave.
Radhika Chadha

Last time in my article Indiagenous Ingenuity, I discussed the jugaad phenomenon and ended saying “There is no questioning Indian creativity – not at the individual level. But does this necessarily translate into innovation at the organisation level? How do we correlate the innate ingenuity of a people with the innovation gap at a more macro level?”

Jugaad is all about the magic of improvisation –when a never-say-die attitude and an ability for lateral thinking encounters an unforeseen problem in a resource-poor situation. As a term it used to be referred to with wry affection that asserted the fix-it approach and yet indicated its rough-and-ready contours.

Interestingly, over the last few years it has become fashionable to celebrate jugaad with an air of self-congratulatory back-patting to demonstrate how innovative we are as a people. At the risk of upsetting this trend, I believe that while jugaad has its place and its benefits, at an organisational level, however, it is not easily embedded in an innovation system.

For one, almost by definition, jugaad is an idiosyncratic response to a problem, not a team activity. To harness the best of jugaad, organisations would need to be structured to allow individuals to provide idiosyncratic solutions without being constrained by approvals and processes. This is not the way that organisations typically work. To some extent quality circles are an attempt to harness individual creativity, but while this works on a shop floor, it needs a different structure and system to work at an organisation-wide scale.

Second, jugaad seems to be at its best when confronted with a problem that needs immediate, quick improvisation. The basic premise, indeed, seems to be that the jugaad would in no way make the situation worse – if it works, it’s great; if it doesn’t, you’re no worse off.

The second insight is particularly important. Jugaad is propelled by a fix-it attitude that creates a just-in-time solution to solve a tightly bounded problem – it is not a strategically tailored innovation which has been conceived to develop an open-ended opportunity.

There is no design element or risk-taking here. There is no evidence of any jugaad being developed consciously as a business opportunity for its originator. It is not born of research, or from technical mastery –from identifying lacunae in customer needs or a eureka moment in a laboratory – indeed, its very definition celebrates the quick-fix cobbled together without a scientific approach. Which is why jugaad does not lend itself to scalability. We have zillion examples of heartwarming and smile-inducing jugaad from all walks of Indian life – how many of these have been translated into commercially viable business opportunities?

Consider the parallels with the two components of research and development. Research needs the ability to visualise things which do not exist. It requires comfort with ambiguity and risk – with taking a leap into the unknown. Development, on the other hand, is what happens when the output parameters are bounded. You know exactly what you want to achieve within those parameters – the question is how to do it.

If jugaad really is a national trait, then Indian managers should be better at development rather than research. Perhaps this is true.

Think of the R&D labs in India for Microsoft, Adobe, GE, or any other Western company. They are considered among the best within their parent companies – but only for solving pre-determined problems. The problems themselves are conceptualised and defined in the West.

When I spoke to Anand Chhatpar, CEO, BrainReactions, this is what he had to say. “The people in Bangalore used the same Dell Inspiron computers, the same broadband Internet connections, the same Microsoft Windows platform PCs, the same programming languages and databases used in Silicon Valley, but the people in the US were making multi-billion dollar Google, while the people in India were still testing office applications and doing grunt-work for American companies. Why? One of the investors, one of the scientists and a large number of employees in Google are Indians, the technology is the same, so why was Google not developed in India? In fact, almost 40 per cent of Silicon Valley start-ups have been formed by Indian entrepreneurs. Why then were the entrepreneurs in India still doing work on contract in the service sector and not innovating products for the world?” And he added that while globally, India was being heralded as a software powerhouse, he did not have a single programme on his computer that was made by an Indian company.

This could simply be a function of India’s economic maturity. As Indian organisations become larger, growth will inevitably slow. The pressure to innovate, rather than develop, will grow.

This need will be matched by the availability of more resources. Also, there is evidence to show that Indian entrepreneurship is mostly need-based, while Western entrepreneurship is opportunity based. As the per capita income grows, Indian entrepreneurship will also move towards exploiting opportunities rather than as alternative employment. But these possibilities lie several years ahead. For the manager who has to work in the here and now, it makes more sense to accept these as givens and work within them, or even build upon them as strengths.

Having said that, the probabilities of successful strategic innovation are high when the gears of strategy, culture and process are meshed together. And while jugaad does not lend itself to a process, it can provide insights for the other two: strategy and culture.

In most Indian consumer markets, gaining size needs disruptions at the low-end, rather than at than top-end. And for this, the jugaad trait, properly harnessed, could be a natural advantage.

Strategically, an organisation that plans to undertake disruptive innovation where features are to be stripped away to bring costs down to address underserved customers at the fringes of the market would benefit by considering how alternative inputs can create required outcomes. In other words, in a market-minus situation, where the price band is set low and reverse engineering is required to deliver the desired profitability, a ‘jugaad’ approach of considering alternative, unusual routes for materials and business models could result in generating innovative solutions. Tata’s Nano is a great study in how an organisation can get committed towards delivery of a product at a market-expansion price and works backwards with non-typical materials and models to achieve this.

The chief risk is a mindset one: product-led, top-end disruption is seen as glamorous, while value disruption is seen as competing on ‘just price’. This is an artificial distinction: Both are perfectly acceptable routes to growth, but both have their own set of limitations. The right choice for an organisation depends on which can help it reach its goals, and which trade-offs it is willing to make.

As regards the culture gear, every organisation would benefit from urging employees to absorb the spirit of jugaad – the willingness to try the road not taken, the acceptance of resource constraints, and the playful combination of offbeat elements to create new solutions – in generating alternatives which can then be fed into an evaluation and execution system.

The biggest danger, in my view, is in elevating jugaad too high – using it to pat ourselves on our back as a highly creative people bursting with ingenuity, without a clear-eyed examination of the zones in which jugaad works and where it doesn’t.

(Radhika Chadha is aconsultant in strategy andinnovation and co-authorof Innovative India:Insights for the ThinkingManager. Karate-gy is theproprietary name of thestrategic exercisesconducted by ParadigmManagement KnowhowLtd.)

Related Stories:
Indiagenous ingenuity
Incentives for innovation
Driving innovation

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 25, 2009)
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