Trying Jugaad Innovation – Simone Ahuja Interview


Simone Ahuja Interview
Co-Author of the book Jugaad Innovation Simone Ahuja talks to us about her journey to writing this book and her views on Innovation.

Simone Ahuja Interview

Tell us something about yourself. Where did you grow up, where did you study and how did you land in the world of Innovation?

Simone Ahuja: I grew up and studied in Minneapolis in the US. A sharp contrast to Mumbai, my base when working in India. My background is a multidisciplinary one with formal training in the sciences and liberal arts. I had been working part-time as a dentist. And simultaneously working in India conducting ethnographic research and creating video case studies. The bout of typhoid very early on in my career was a wake-up call to pursue those things about which I’m truly passionate. This realization drove me to pursue my study of emerging markets. And innovation on a full-time basis.

How and when did you first came across the term Jugaad? What were your first impression of this term and its usage?

A few years ago, Blood Orange was retained by a Fortune 100 company to research the approach to innovation in emerging markets. And its relevance in a global context. This consisted of primarily qualitative background. And ethnographic research that took us across India from the most remote villages of Karnataka to meetings with CEOs of MNCs in Gurgaon. I lead two teams for this project – one US-based and one India based, all very talented. However, I noticed that when we’d run into a roadblock of some kind, the India teams would often suggest a highly flexible, often low-cost solution to our problem. “We’ll do some jugaad”, they’d say.

I was intrigued, as was my US team. The term came up more and more frequently not only as we sought frugal and flexible solutions to our own problems. But also as we examined several case studies of innovative products, services and business models across the country. It became clear that ‘jugaad’ is a valuable skill. I feel that this is so inherent to many Indians that it’s not respected as a mindset that can help drive breakthrough innovation.

In my understanding of Jugaad, it is a temporary makeshift solution when the regular solution is unavailable. Your comments?

My co-authors Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and I interviewed hundreds of grassroots entrepreneurs, managers and C-level execs across India. To better understand the meaning of the word jugaad. Which means many things to many people depending on a variety of factors. Including geographic region and socioeconomic status. While colloquially, jugaad can refer to a makeshift or stop-gap solution – or even gaming the system, we re-contextualized the meaning of the word to an extent based on our interviews. And the deeper essence of its meaning. In our book, we describe how the frugal or low-cost, flexible or improvisational and inclusiveness of jugaad innovation often leads to sustainable solutions. As well as sustainable growth for the companies who utilize this approach to innovation.

Further, we found that jugaad innovation can and is being exercised by organizations both large and small. In the US today, jugaad innovation really is the way forward. And especially beneficial when used to augment the traditional, structured approach to innovation.

I feel given the worldwide economic situation or following a cycle, the time has come for Simple Solutions. Last 50 years we were looking towards technology for a solution to all kinds of problems and a lot of times we got lost in the technology and lost sight of the real problem or its cause. Do you see a trend towards Simple thoughts and Simpler solutions?

Simplicity is a key principle of jugaad innovation, and one of my favorites. To be clear, simplicity is not the same as simplistic. The world today is complex. And we often forget that innovations need not be complex at all. Innovators in India and across the rest of the globe are focusing more and more on consumer needs.  And are responding to consumer demand for simpler products over complex ones. Simple, “good enough” products and services may sound like sub-standard offerings to some. But actually, embody focused design garnered from empathy and deep insights.

Simplicity is a critical driver of innovation that often leads to more affordable and accessible products. With easier maintenance and satisfies a broader audience. Having said that, jugaad innovation does not preclude the use of technology. And technology can assist in the creation of simple solutions. If we look at mobile financial services, for example, or products like Siemens fetal heart monitor that uses a much simpler microphone technology rather than expensive, harder to operate ultrasound technology to monitor fetal heart rates we see that technology can be an integral part of jugaad innovation.

Of all the six principles that you mentioned, I thought ‘Thinking and Acting Flexibly’ is the key thing that innovators need. You can not be very creative amongst rigid rules and stiff structures. Where would you rate the leading organizations in the world on this parameter based on your experience and research?

I agree that “Thinking and Acting Flexibly” is one of the most important principles that underpin jugaad innovation. As I mentioned earlier, if I look at team members in my own business, it’s those who can find not only alternative paths to a solution but also alternative solutions to a problem who add the greatest value. This is done through a flexible, improvisational mindset. Having said that, I think flexible thinking can be learned. But it’s difficult, particularly for those from more resource-rich environments like the US. Where the approach to innovation is more rigid, expensive and insular – done by people whose job it is to innovate.

Simone Ahuja, Can you throw some light on the ‘Follow your Heart’, how much do you think it impacts the quality of Innovation?

Follow your heart really speaks to the passion and compassion that drives jugaad innovators. Whether it’s Rana Kapoor of YES Bank creating a more inclusive and accessible, yet profitable financial service model. Also to the intuition and empathy that helps them create a lower cost and more accessible products, services and business models. In today’s world where consumers are demanding more value for money products that meet their specific needs, these skills are equally if not more important than analytical skills.

I loved the last chapter, where you thankfully do not offer Jugaad as a magic pill and tell situations where Jugaad can be used effectively and where it may not be such a good idea. Are you guys working on exploring this aspect deeper sometime?

We feel clear that jugaad innovation is not a panacea. But rather a toolkit with principles that help augment the more traditional, structured approach to innovation that is so dominant in the West. Further, we suggest that not all principles apply at all times. And we recommend that principles are selected to meet the demands of the project at hand. We study this often as we work with clients who are looking to integrate these principles into their innovation practices which allow us to further refine and define best practices.

How did the three of you come together and coordinate writing the book? Did you have to travel a lot and meet a lot of people for the research?

The research for Jugaad Innovation took place over five years. Through field study, phone interviews, and academic research. My co-authors and I would typically work remotely via email and Skype. And then reconvene in India every few months to continue our research and writing. It was a surprisingly smooth and effective process.

Tell us some interesting anecdotes from the time you were working on the book, any surprises that come your way.

I was most inspired by the grassroots innovators that we met through our research. Such as Mansukh Prajapati, the innovator who created the MittiCool, a clay refrigerator that uses no electricity. The creativity and innovation demonstrated by these entrepreneurs, in spite of severely limited resources from education to affordable capital were truly humbling.

One of the most interesting things we learned was that while ‘jugaad’ is most active in emerging markets, it is not unique to India. There are several parallel terms such as ‘gambiarra’ in Brazil and ‘zizhu chuangxin’ in China. And I would say that it’s most like D.I.Y, or do-it-yourself in the US. A growing movement of individuals solving their own problems.

What are you next working on Simone Ahuja, please share with our readers?

Simone Ahuja: Currently, I’m working on several executive education initiatives. Both through business schools and through Blood Orange. We offer interactive, frugal innovation labs. Where we help companies (typically larger MNCs) understand how to apply the principles of jugaad innovation to current and future business projects. It’s particularly rewarding to see how the principles, when applied, can result in the creation of value products, services, and business models that benefit society, and drive sustainable growth for corporations.

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