As you may have inferred from the title of this week’s column, I am not the world’s most ardent fan of the sacred virtue of jugaad. In fact, in most cases, I can’t stand it. Especially when it is institutionalized and waved about as some kind of national treasure.
For those who are new to this country and are yet to disembark from your planes, jugaad may be defined as finding a short-term inventive solution to a problem that is often structural and institutional. Or, to put it in cubicle terms, jugaad is that voice in your head that tells you, when faced with a paperless printer, you should just steal some from the next machine instead of loading a fresh batch.
Wait. I know you are going to shove your Harvard case studies and management manuals in my face. Most of which make jugaad sound like the central tenet of our cultural, professional and economic existence, just behind Mahatma Gandhi and Mumbai dabbawallahs, in that order. This is an excerpt from one recent post on jugaad published on the Harvard Business Review blog site:
“Jugaad is a Hindi word that loosely translates as ‘the gutsy art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources.’ Jugaad is an antidote to the complexity of India: a country of mind-boggling diversity; pervasive scarcity of all kinds; and exploding interconnectivity (India is adding 10 million cellphone subscribers every month).”
The post, by the authors of a forthcoming book called Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth, goes on to talk about why jugaad is effective in India. It cites several examples of business models that, it says, tap into this way of thinking.
Now I am not going to argue with the fact that desperate invention and innovation is vital in surviving, leave alone succeeding, through chaos. Imagine—and you may have to try very, very hard—if every driver in Delhi followed lane discipline, drove within speed limits, stopped at zebra crossings, never drove on the wrong side and never stopped in the middle of traffic. Utopia? No. Then? Madness. People would start moving from Delhi to Mumbai for the commute. The only reason, I am convinced, that Delhi does not end in a massive all-city logjam each morning is that people jugaad their way to office. Not because they choose to. But because they have to.
And therein, I believe, lies the biggest difference between solving a problem and protracting it. Jugaad, whatever be the de rigeur definition for it, is only a short-term solution. You can steal the paper as much as you want from the photocopier. But at some point someone has to go to the stationery cupboard and pull out a new pack.
Jugaad is not, I am afraid, the ‘antidote to the complexity of India’ any more than wearing a long kurta is the antidote to the complexity of wearing a pair of pants with a broken zipper that won’t close. What we need are solutions that are scalable, repeatable and can be institutionalized.
I find it particularly infuriating when jugaad is extolled in the workplace. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Let me explain with some examples:
Problem 1: Your Internet in the office is very slow and does not allow you to download some important client information.
Correct solution: Get a better Internet connection.
Jugaad solution: Go home, connect to the Virtual Private Network, access office email. Fail. Try accessing again. Fail. Try again. Start downloading. Go back to office. Open file. File is corrupt. Go to Internet cafe. Download again. Go to office. Client sends updated file version 2.4. Swallow toner from copier and die.
Problem 2: Your office email rejects large attachments. And it does so randomly and without notification.
Correct solution: Replace pirated email software with a proper system. Hire a new IT fellow. Drive over the old IT fellow repeatedly in an SUV.
Jugaad solution: Tell everyone to send copies of all email to your Gmail account as well as office account. Then one day, 15 minutes before a board meeting, Gmail crashes or is blocked by your firewall (also pirated). You calmly weigh your options, and settle for the window on the 32nd floor overlooking the ICICI building.
Problem 3: You decide to invest in a world class multi-speciality hospital in a major Indian city. However because access to emergency services like the fire brigade is limited, you need to invest in additional safety measures.
Correct solution: Invest in a functioning, reliable, well-rehearsed safety mechanism that accounts and compensates for poor public services and response issues.
Jugaad solution: Annual donations to the respective authorities at licensing agency, police station, Tirupati and Sabarimala.
Let us not confuse innovation, invention and ingenuity with the slapdash ability to paper over cracks. Yes, presence of mind, has a place in our professional and public lives. Yes, there is a time for that piece of MacGyver improvisation.
But that time cannot be everytime. Next time you spot jugaad anywhere near your cubicle, shoot. To kill.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life.Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Sidin Vadukut’s earlier columns