Frugal innovation – truly getting more with less

Imagine you’re rocketing along winding, rutted African country roads, an elderly woman steering an ancient dented blue Nissan. Then imagine her telling you the car battery is just held together with some glue.

In Zimbabwe, where I taught school a million years ago, Mrs. Stebbings, a Zimbabwean woman who worked in the school office, was in the fantastic habit of taking me and other foreign teachers on outings around the countryside, to visit waterfalls and farms and enormous whalelike rocks.

She loved to tell the story of the battery, of how it had gotten jolted and cracked, and the acid had drained out of it. The mechanic said they could try to find a new one, but there was a shortage, as happens frequently in developing economies.

Or they could glue it together, somehow getting the acid back in, and hope it held. Mrs. Stebbings went for the glue solution, and off she drove.

And all these years later I’m intrigued to find the concept of frugal innovation, or jugaad, making the rounds more and more frequently in business journalism. It’s a Hindi word meaning “clever improvisation” or “workaround,” and the idea is just like that car battery. It’s about solutions that may not be the most elegant, or using the factory-authorized parts, but that get the job done with the resources available.

It’s a fantastic approach when you’re trying to address things that are urgent, big, complex, and when you can’t make all your investments at once. Perhaps its popularity is partly a reaction against the Six Sigma, heavily standardized, risk-averse trends we’ve seen over the past 20 years?

  • Sometimes it’s important just to fix what’s broken to get on with something else.
  • Sometimes it’s important to half-invent something to see if it works, as in super-rapid prototyping.
  • Sometimes frugality means a jugaad type of solution is all you can afford – it’s either that, or do without.
  • Sometimes having fewer resources to throw at a problem helps you think about it from a fresh angle.

As a leader, you should think about whether you have enough of this going on in your organization – and you need to keep an eye on where the jugaad solutions are already in place:

  • Don’t overreact! Keeping an open mind means you’ll actually hear about the duct-tape-and-baling-wire elements of your operations. Everyone’s got them. You don’t want to be the last to know about that cumbersome-yet-miraculous-problem-solving workaround.
  • Create the conditions. When budgets are getting cut or resources are scarce, you should assume that interesting ideas may come from that exigency. Don’t focus on what’s been lost, but don’t be overly sunny, either. Specifically ask whether there are assumptions that can be challenged about processes, investments, materials, or activities so you can achieve your ends without spending as much. Even if it’s just a temporary fix.
  • Are there any challenges you should starve of resources to see what will emerge?
  • Be willing to spend some time when you can’t spend money to find solutions. Get comfortable with the idea that you don’t have the answer yet.
  • Make the most of it when you find it. Where does the jugaad solution point to a deeper insight about how you could operate more efficiently? Or where you should go in a new direction entirely?
  • Put people who are great at this kind of problem-solving into positions where their ingenuity can thrive. Don’t stifle them with too much standardization, or bore them with slow-moving machinery. Keep them stimulated. (Bear in mind that putting resources against their innovation may, counterintuitively, disappoint them.)
  • Keep an eye out for the point when the strain gets to be too much – for your people’s energy and goodwill, your brand, or your risk tolerance. As times change, what worked just fine as a jerry-rigged solution – for a while – starts to fall apart. Don’t confuse clever workarounds with the road to staff burnout (or system failure!).

As with many concepts, this is one that fits very well for certain circumstances, and seems particularly apt for fast-changing, resource-constrained times. It’s a tactic, not a strategy, though. And at some point, to grow, even the most frugal innovation will need investment.

Mrs. Stebbings would gleefully jolt along the back roads, clutching the steering wheel with knobbly arthritic hands, pointing out acacia and flame trees to us newcomers as she navigated hairpin turns, her Frankenstein battery holding fast under the hood. She was proud of her continued mobility, and the mechanic’s ingenuity, and what it said about her country – its can-do attitude and willingness to make do and get on with things. Without that battery, or, more precisely, that mechanic’s jugaad solution to the broken battery problem, there are a lot of gorgeous places we’d never have seen.

Good enough, right?

Images from Creative Commons.

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