Indian Jugaad

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As a cross-culturalist, it is fascinating to become immersed in a less familiar culture and find out something new. It tends to happen quite quickly, as you have an idea in advance of the sort of thing you are looking for. For me, it is to find qualities which are not found in quite the same form anywhere else. Defining concepts which capture in brief the essence of a culture – such as Finnish sisu, German Ordnung, or Korean kibun.

In India recently for a workshop tour to Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi, I was about to start for the day when the organiser said there was a problem with the projection screen. It was a metre too low, so those at the back would not have been able to see the bottom of my slides. He called over the lone technician at the 5 star hotel conference centre and told him he had 10 minutes to resolve the situation. It was a huge and heavy screen with a large wooden surround with the management school’s logo on it. Impossible to lift alone. Within seconds the room was bustling with people, ranging from the conference centre manager to kitchen staff. Trestle tables, starched white cloths, various random pieces of wood, ropes, hammers and nails appeared. The screen teetered into the air precariously, just missing the rather large chandeliers. A collective effort raised it onto the now neatly-covered tables and a disorderly banging and shuffling began behind it. When the course participants began filing in, the set-up was perfect: screen one metre higher; looking as if it had always been like that. Not a workman in sight. I glanced behind it and observed that it was held up by a Heath-Robinson-style rickety wooden framework secured by long guy-ropes. It served its purpose all day. Next morning the screen was held in place invisibly and professionally.

Asking my Indian friends about this later, they said it was a perfect example of Jugaad – best described as a sort of hurried collective resourcefulness; a finding of an alternative, laterally-thought out solution – which somehow works against the odds – gaining time by acting before the proper means to carry out the job arrive, maybe using your connections, and possibly bending some rules along the way.

In concrete terms, a Jugaad is also a locally made motor vehicle used mostly in small villages as a means of low cost transportation and made by carpenters, who fit a diesel engine to their contraption. The brakes often fail – but, no worries, as a passenger will jump off and apply a manual wooden block as a brake. More Jugaad, in other words.

Jugaad can also be used in the context of management. In the West we may sometimes be hidebound by our solid structures and processes, too tied to facts and rules. Jugaad could be seen as a sort of out-of-the-box and network-style thinking that could serve us well in times of change, crisis and in extreme circumstances. It requires people to use skills outside the ones they may have been employed for, and which usually go unexploited. It requires strong collaborative skills. It means an open mind and boundless flexibility.

A recent comparative report by McKinsey on the relative strengths of India and China identified Indian flexibility as a key ‘soft competitive edge’ that India has.

Another Indian characteristic – the belief in Karma or fate – can sometimes be used as way of excusing things which go wrong. Even the most sophisticated and western-influenced Indian manager is likely to retain, at a deep level, a belief in Karma.

On the other hand, it can be a great stimulus to take the risks that may be needed to effect real change. If things turn out badly, then that was meant to happen – so you may as well take the leap of faith and be bold.

In our current global recession it is likely to be the bold, flexible and resourceful who survive.

We can learn a lot from India.

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