Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"In Praise of 'Jugaad'"... Wait! Really?

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Ms Devita Saraf extolls the virtues of Indian ingenuity and proposes Jugaad as a concept that Indian enterprise should leverage in order to be globally competitive. I recognize that there's a chance that you, dear reader, may not know what Jugaad means, in which case I would recommend that you find someone who knows the Hindi vernacular well enough (including colloquialisms and slang) and get them to explain to you its full meaning, since I would be digressing significantly if I were to go into it here and now. (My guess is that you will know it anyway by the time you've finished reading this post.) Jugaad is not a new concept -- at least, not in the Indian IT industry, and that I can assert confidently. In my by now rather longish career, I've worked for (or with) several companies where the sales force openly specialized in Jugaad tactics, and veteran salesmen took great pride and pleasure in narrating their Jugaad war-stories after work, at their favourite watering hole, to bright-eyed tyros who would give their left index finger to be able to emulate them. In fact one company used to unofficially (but affectionately) refer to its PC sales division as the "J-segment", since Jugaad was what really seemed to work in that fiercely competitive market.

I've never been impressed by cunningness, clever lies, cheap tricks and other forms of prevarication and prestidigitation in business. Jugaad has been something I've sought to be as far away from as possible, managing to successfully evade it through most of my career on the 'sell' side of the market, barring perhaps a few exceptions. (Let me add that in those exceptional situations I always strove to retain my professional integrity even at the risk of earning my team-mates' ire for being, from their perspective, a party-pooper. But that was not enough to stop them from tricking unsuspecting customers or suppliers or alliance partners.) And while on the 'buy' side of the market, I've generally been a Jihadi against Jugaad. As a buyer, I've developed a nose for all forms of chicanery, sophistry and subterfuge over the years, having been on the other side and having had a ring-side view of the metamorphosis from the 'sudden brilliant idea' stage to the parasitic feeding off the budget of the hapless customer -- I smell such creepies and crawlies from a mile away, and tend to promptly squash them before they could get under my skin and disrupt my plans.

This is not to say that I am against out-of-the-box ideas to overcome typical constraints faced by Indian industry / business. I wholeheartedly support clean and honest ingenuity and innovation in, for instance, applying modern tools and technologies to solve India's unique problems through effective low-cost solutions sourced from local providers and drawing on locally available resources. (While on this, I want to add that I do not see this as 'insular' as Ms Saraf suggests -- I still believe in the nascent post-independence doctrine of self-sufficiency as the platform for development and growth of the Indian economy, but unlike Nehruvian socio-economists, I would advocate that it be coupled with liberalisation and international trade in relevant sectors.) There is no question in my mind that the indigenous development of 'appropriate technology' solutions is a highly beneficial strategy for India. The same goes for original ideas and innovative management thinking around challenges in the way we organize and conduct business in India. I have in fact always lamented the lack of focus on these areas in our technical / higher education curricula, and lack of adequate impetus to / funding of research aimed at developing indigenous solutions, in Indian educational and research institutions. Some of the examples cited in the article are great testimonials to Indian ingenuity, and exemplary models worthy of replication and emulation not just in India but any other geography or economy where the basic underlying approach could be ported. But there are some areas where ingenuity is clearly not to be encouraged (e.g., 'creative accounting', regulatory compliance, etc.). The problem with Jugaad as an overall inspiration to strategy is that it is an omnibus category that includes all of these ideas and does not exclude the bad parts (such as deceit, trickery and evasiveness). Jugaad clouds ingenuity with disingenuousness.

Online WSJ requires you to register and log-in, in order to be able to comment, and while I usually get discouraged to comment because of this, I made an exception this time since I thought it was important that readers of Ms Saraf's article also see things from a different perspective, i.e., mine. My comment is reproduced here for your benefit, to save you the trouble of searching for it at the site.
Good post! Thanks for sharing some very interesting insights on Indian ingenuity, which, arguably, is unparalleled across global industrial and business cultures. However, I have a couple of concerns about Jugaad, which I shall attempt to crystallize around two focal points: 
1. 'Jugaad' could easily become another word for 'adjust' - an English word that is used in a totally different sense in India. While it means different things to different people in different contexts, the common thread running through all of those is the ability to 'make do' with the situation and 'somehow manage' to meet your goals. It can be a positive thing sometimes (for instance, when we learn to accommodate and tolerate some inconvenience, with a larger good in view) but quite often, it becomes synonymous with either compromise or poor quality or unfair means - or any combination thereof. We must be cautious, in according official sanction to this approach, to not sweep all of these overtones into the same box. Frugal engineering is a good, healthy, positive spin to put on Jugaad, but only if we mine the 'ore' of the broad concept, get rid of the unwanted and toxic sludge, and refine the valuable part (i.e. the part dealing with value addition through innovation out of constraints) of the core concept. If we are successful in doing that, India could actually create her own unique methodology aimed at gaining competitive advantage in the global economic value chain across all industry. 
2. Notwithstanding the above, and from a different point of view, where are environmental considerations in all this? Are Jugaad strategies green? Does Jugaad provide an opportunity for sustainable competitive advantage? Unfortunately, the path of socially responsible ecological economics is not easy, in that there are no short-cuts. Instead, there are some really tough trade-offs to be considered and hard decisions to be made. Jugaad sometimes also becomes synonymous with short-cuts, as explained above. But if Jugaad strategies also result in sustainable wealth creation, then they are more than welcome. If not, even if they are ethically sound practices, we must first check if they are also 'clean and green' before we deploy them. 
To summarize, my mixed feelings about Jugaad centre around the potential for breach of ethics and the absence of environmental / ecological and social considerations. While I am excited by the potential of Jugaad - to become our next national slogan, if you like - I am equally concerned that official endorsement of it may become a license to unscrupulous businessmen to continue indulging in malpractices with even more gusto. Let's remember that the myopic tactics followed by some sections of the global financial services industry, which eventually led to the global economic crisis, were also a form of Jugaad. Such tactics were innovative, perhaps, but they were also toxic, as time has shown. And non-sustainable. 
Thanks for your patience with my rather lengthy comment!
While the article does acknowledge, towards the end, that 'it needs some serious work on two fronts ...' before the idea of Jugaad can be embedded in all Indian business thinking, it does not address the concerns I have outlined. On the contrary, the two fronts it says it needs serious work on, are (both) in the nature of further advancing the concept as it exists, without any cleansing or sanitization along the lines I have suggested in my comment. I really hope Ms Saraf pauses to factor-in relevant inputs from the comments and makes the necessary tweaks in her ideology before further developing the 'Jugaad-as-the-way-forward-for-India-to-become-a-superpower' theme. Otherwise, the glorification of Jugaad just might result in business folks of questionable integrity smirking to themselves, thinking: "Heh. Jugaad is cool - even the voices at the top say it is. So what if it is not always above board or not sustainable? It is now official!"

I have my fingers crossed, but am not holding my breath.