Adapt, Jugaad, Hacking, Shanzhai or the Merits of Seeing the World As It Is Not

Adapt, Jugaad, Hacking, Shanzhai or the Merits of Seeing the World As It Is Not

I’m usually skeptical when local habits become emerging trends and are subsequently declared a new global management paradigm, but in the case of the much buzzed-about Jugaad I am inclined to follow the gurus.The trend began with Reena Jana’s seminal article in BusinessWeek in December 2009 (full disclosure: Reena is a consulting editor at frog, a company of he Aricent Group), in which she critically investigated the value of Jugaad and anticipated its entering the lexicon of management consultants. The term Jugaad (pronounced “joo-gaardh”) is a colloquial Hindi word that describes a creative ad hoc solution to a vexing issue, making existing things work and/or creating new things with scarce resources. Although sometimes used pejoratively (in the sense of a makeshift cheap fix), it is now widely accepted as a noun to describe Indian-style innovation (some also call it “indovation”) – describing the inventiveness of Indian grassroots engineers and scientists that have led to the pedal-powered washing machine, inspired the extra-low-cost Tata Nano car, or the success of India’s space program. It is, in short, the art of holistic (and therefore lateral) thinking, of unbound, resilient creativity, and of improvisation and rapid prototyping under severe constraints.

This sounds strangely like Design Thinking – the last “out-of-the-box” management fad that never really reached the C-suites and eventually remained an insular theory (cynics remark that it allowed wannabe designers to at least think like designers, and they consider the ongoing debate about whether or not design thinking is dead simply a post-mortem obsession). Design Thinking was marketed as a methodology, a template for driving systemic change across industries and societal areas through silver design bullets, but despite its kernel of truth and undoubted appeal, it ultimately failed to have more than just shallow impact. I can’t tell you how many executives I have come across at conferences who proudly share that they are now “of course applying a little bit of design thinking in their company” (the “of course” is the worst).

While companies that exhibit curiosity and open-mindedness deserve praise, many of them are suckers for the next new shiny thing that promises to give them an innovation edge. Granted, companies are inherently paranoid, and perhaps that’s the only way for them to survive, but it is remarkable how insecure they are when it comes to innovation, and it seems as if their insecurity is directly proportional to their size. Picasso’s famous line “All children are zborn artists. The problem is to remain artists as we grow up” could not be truer for organizations – they appear to be spending their entire adulthood regaining the naïve creative poise they had when they were small, young, and innocent. The more they expand their horizons, the more they shrink the sky.

On the other side of the spectrum, start-ups ‘just do it,’ they use trial and error, passion, and a fervent can-do attitude to churn out ideas and “make stuff.” However, as soon as they mature into more formal organizational designs and operations, they usually begin to hire consultants who tell them how to do and label what they had been doing and known all along. These consultants then replace intuition with frameworks and routines with methodologies, and they impose processes on organisms, analyze the obvious, and worship “strategy” – as if such thing existed in the messy world of creativity.

Most of these consultants are trying to sell innovation as a toolbox, but as former BusinessWeek writer Helen Walters aptly points out: Innovation cannot be reduced to a process. “A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work to challenge the status quo of an industry or, at the very least, an organization,” she writes, and suggests that: “Executives are understandably looking for tidy ways to guarantee their innovation efforts – but they'd be better off coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t any.”

With this insight becoming the new norm, it is no surprise that innovation gurus are now shifting their focus to innovation as a mindset. Clayton Christensen, who famously coined the term “Disruptive Innovation,” has been investigating the "Innovator’s DNA" over the past few years and published the results in his new book (together with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen). He identifies as the five core skills of the innovator: questioning, observing, networking, experimenting, and associational thinking.

Dev Patnaik, CEO and founder of Jump Associates, heralds the term Hybrid Thinking, proposing multi-disciplinary teams of multi-disciplinary people (“folks who are one-part humanist, one-part technologist, and one-part capitalist”). Adept at dealing with ambiguity, hybrid thinkers are T-shaped renaissance men and women who can quickly distill what matters from various fields – the innovator as the big synthesizer.

This kind of nimbleness is also touted by Financial Times columnist and recent TEDGlobal speaker Tim Harford. In his new book Adapt he contends that “success always starts with failure.” Today’s world challenges, he argues, simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and complex. Leaning on the Darwinian principles of evolution, Harford believes that disruptive innovations bubble up in the marketplace by a process of trial and error and that ingenuity rather than strategic genius or commercial acumen defines the most brilliant innovations. Consequently, innovators must adapt – experiment feverishly, improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather than great leaps forward.

And from there it’s only a baby step to Jugaad. Navi Radjou, one of the foremost experts on global innovation with whom I had the pleasure to meet last week, believes Jugaad is a model that leaders across industries and cultures can adopt, not in the sense of frugal or reverse innovation that sees Western companies develop and pilot products in emerging markets to then import them back home or globalize them, but as the fundamental, polycentric, and improvisational mindset of innovators.

In a certain sense, Jugaad is a remote sibling of the Western-style hacking, the manipulation of existing products and services, and with the Chinese Shanzhai phenomenon (innovation through fast imitation) it has in common the utter disrespect for any kind of brand or management ideology. Adaptation, improvisation, rapid experimentation, fast failing, a high tolerance for ambiguity, super-flexibility (one of the key traits of what I call “smart brands”) – together these principles are perhaps marking the beginning of a new era of doing business, a new economy.

In light of the demise of same-old capitalism, bizarre piles of national debt, the concern about a “jobless future,” and growing social tensions from Greece to Israel to China, this new economy has become a mission-critical project for humanity. It is no coincidence that several recent publications reference betterment (in other words, innovation) as a variable of culture, using different terms, yet describing the same values and behaviors. Philosophically-minded author and “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz provides a meta-perspective on them all in her book Being Wrong. She observes that “seeing the world as it is not” (the definition of being wrong) is the quintessence of imagination, invention, and hope – and of course innovation. Innovators see the world as it is not (but could be). They are always initially wrong to be ultimately right. It’s the fools who speak the truth, have “insane” ideas, and ultimately make change happen. We need more of them in times like these.


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