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When Businesses are too clever for their own good

Resourcefulness is a universally valued quality.  We hire people who can “get things done” and reward them based upon their results.  An Indian friend shared with me a wonderful Hindi word, jugaad (the “d” sounds like a soft “r”), which takes our western view of innovation to a new level.  A couple of the more prevalent definitions could be: “doing good things with what you’ve got”, “making do”, “a frugal and innovative fix”, or more creatively a “duct tape solution”.  The goal of business is to make something of value out of limited resources.

Startup companies apply their focus on developing products that will sell.  They are interesting in establishing and gaining market share over their competitors.  Innovations are focused primarily on these goals at the expense of other drivers because their very existence is in question.  As companies expand and become successful, innovation is applied to scalable processes and reduction of costs that maximize profits and allow scalable growth in larger addressable markets.

I love the corporate myths that come out of the early startup days that exemplify that quick thinking heroics required.  The excitements of a last ditch effort to win customers or to save an account.  I’ve heard leaders brag about the time they chartered a plane to the Philippine Islands just to deliver a new, state of the art, router on time and thwarting a competitor; or the time an account team spent 48 hours onsite with a customer recovering the US East Coast internet and bringing it to stability.  These ancient experiences build the corporate culture and provide legends to inspire staff. Unfortunately, the “diving catch” innovation that drives startups must be limited as a company transitions into a medium sized growing concern.  The culture that launched the company’s success can hold it back, and even make it fail, if it’s not focused and managed.

A medium sized company whose market share is expanding and needs to figure out how to scale to their customers’ expanding needs hired a friend of mine.  Every R&D project is managed in the moment.  Schedules are not taken seriously and scope is changed based upon the last customer that the General Manager has spoken to.  The company grew incredibly fast and the “diving catch” culture has caused them to miss customer commitments.  Features are inconsistently delivered or only partially implemented and schedules are unpredictable.  The staff often complains that they aren’t “allowed” to plan and execute because of the steady stream of last minute requirements with little, or no, consideration for their impact on existing expectations.

I asked my friend to tell me about the types of exceptions drive his business and how they’re managed.  “They really aren’t managed”, he quipped.  He said that someone, usually the Product Manager or the General Manager, would ask them to include some last minute requirements into the existing scope.  They don’t make tradeoffs or examine potential impacts to the schedule or scope but are expected to meet all previous commitments.  In the spirit of jugaad, they’re expected to “just get it done”.  The staff pretends not to notice the change in scope and the management doesn’t have the ability to increase resourcing on the projects.  Project teams were afraid to mention the contradictions caused by an ever-expanding scope so they could never commit to features that would be delivered at the end of a project.

I worked in a medium sized technology company with many of the same symptoms and was assigned to develop and implement standardized cross-organizational systems.  The different leaders across the company saw no need to collaborate and didn’t understand that consistency was how they would be able to scale to the larger market demands.  The first 6 to 12 months consisted of one painful obstacle after another.  Directors within the company would pull me aside and tell me that “People have tried this before.  The culture won’t allow this kind of change.”  On one hand, individual engineers would express their frustrations about the inconsistent tools they were provided and on the other hand, leaders would tell me that they were afraid that the engineers would balk at the changes.  The obstacles were not in the junior ranks

Our real obstacle was from the leaders’ fear of making decisions and having to justify changes to their people.  They really didn’t understand what their folks were up against but didn’t feel they had the time to find out.  They were hoping that either the problem would just go away or that their people would find a way to solve problems without changing their environment.  Instead of embracing jugaad, they expected it of others.  Once my team and I understood the dynamics we developed our projects through visible and extensive proofs of concept coupled with organizationally focused public status for accomplishments.  We gathered their business requirements and validated that they were answered in the PoCs and then publicly held them accountable for participation and deliverables.

I love the subtlety of jugaad as a concept.  The implied cleverness is crucial to businesses at every level.  Unfortunately, without accountability and transparency, jugaad can be a rationalization for some bad behaviors that drive businesses into the ground.  When jugaad is used as an expectation without planning and thought, it can create an environment of fear and distrust.  “Just get it done” is often interpreted as “don’t bother me with your challenges, do what I say”.  That’s when communication breaks down and leaders lose touch with their business.  This brand of jugaad reeks of bottom shelf liquor, fear, and failure.  Businesses should drive for and demand innovation but also need the discipline to set delivery expectations, measure outcomes, and adapt to markets.  Jugaad can’t be used as an excuse for not paying attention to the business.

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