Innovation: Is Less More?

Stephen DeAngelis

February 7, 2014

A little over a year ago, Chuck Frey, Senior Editor at InnovationManagmenet.se, wrote, “Matthew E. May, author of the new book The Laws of Subtraction, believes if we would take a more minimalist approach to our work, seeking ways to get maximum impact with minimum effort, there would be much less waste – and much more innovation.” [“The Surprising Connection Between Simplification and Innovation,” 23 January 2013] May and Frey are not alone when it comes to believing that less can be more when it comes to innovation. One champion of this notion is Whitney Johnson, a co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton Christensen’s investment firm. Johnson wasn’t always a proponent of the less is more approach. She writes that she gained this appreciation after she left Merrill Lynch to co-found Rose Park Advisors. “Nearly a decade later,” she writes, “I find myself almost a fan of constraints.” [“Why Innovators Love Constraints,” HBR Blog Network, 4 February 2013]

 

The concept of doing more with less underlies the “jugaad” movement which I’ve written about in previous posts. “Jugaad” (pronounced jewgard) is an Indian term used to describe a unique innovation process. Literally, “jugaad” means “somehow get it done.” In the U.S., we might use the term “jury-rigged” in much the same way. Unlike “jury-rigged,” however, “jugaad” is overcoming its pejorative past and is a process now being taught around the world. Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, and Simone Ahuja write, “The jugaad spirit, also known as the ‘pioneer spirit,’ was once common in North America and Europe as well.” [“What the West Can Learn from Jugaad,” strategy + business, 26 February 2013] They obviously believe that something was lost when the “pioneer spirit” was no longer the prevailing motivation for innovation. They explain:

“During the 20th century, Western companies built up dedicated research and development departments aimed at institutionalizing and managing their innovation capabilities. This industrialization of the creative process led to a structured approach to innovation that spawned big budgets, standardized business processes, and controlled access to knowledge. Most Western firms have assimilated the idea that an innovation system — like any other industrial system — will generate more output (inventions) if fed more input (resources). As a result, the structured innovation engine in most companies is capital intensive, requiring an abundant supply of financial and natural resources at a time when both are scarce. The 1,000 companies in the world that invest the most in innovation spent a whopping $603 billion on R&D in 2011. But what did they get in return? As the Booz & Company Global Innovation 1000 study has repeatedly shown since 2005, pumping more money into R&D doesn’t necessarily buy more innovation.”

Like Johnson, Radjou, Prabhu, and Ahuja believe that great ideas emerge more often when people are forced to find solutions to challenges under conditions that severely limit available resources. They continue, “The extreme conditions that make jugaad innovation worthwhile have typically been more prevalent in emerging markets such as India, China, and Brazil than in the United States or Europe. But in recent years, developed economies have begun to exhibit many of the same aspects of scarcity, diversity, unpredictability, and interconnectivity, making these principles relevant to companies around the world.” That is why the “less is more” philosophy is starting to garner more support in the developed world. Johnson believes, “Fewer resources produce proximity; proximity drives innovation.” She explains:

“A sense of collaboration and immediacy often happens as people who are cash poor or without needed resources (e.g., young professional, entrepreneur, non-profit), are required to barter, to figure out what they have to bring to the table. Barter, I find, drives engagement in a deeper way than when you are simply dealing with money. The truth is we often don’t experience proximity unless we are forced to. If you want to form meaningful bonds that lead to productive collaboration and innovation, make room for more close encounters.”

Frey reports that May insists that the minimalist approach to innovation actually begins at the idea stage. He explains:

“According to May, the most engaging ideas and experiences don’t overwhelm us with a mountain of detail, but rather paint a compelling picture composed of a minimum of information. This compels our brains to fill in the gaps. We ‘lean forward’ as our curiosity draws us into them. May believes that we need to bring a similar mindset to our creative endeavors to increase our odds of success. … May says we need to have a broad-brush, compelling vision of what we want to accomplish. This will help the team to lean forward, generate passion and commitment necessary to propel the project and keep people headed in the right general direction. As the vision is achieved, the means to do so may change – that’s the creative part. But what remains, … are the core values of the team – ‘what we stand for, why we exist,’ in May’s words.”

Returning to Johnson’s notion of constraints, she writes, “Constraints lead to faster feedback.” Undoubtedly, some of the faster feedback is a result of the proximity she discussed earlier. But, she insists, there is more to it than that. She explains:

“Whether they are limits on space, time, money or other resources, constraints can improve our agility and get our synapses firing at lightning speed. … When there is less of a cushion between oneself and failure, innovation becomes a necessity. … The fact is that we are always going to be resource-constrained, but a willingness to work with our limitations may make all the difference in getting an idea off the ground.”

Johnson also believes that “constraints can be an indispensable tool of creation.” That certainly agrees the principles associated with jugaad. She concludes”

“We may chafe against constraints, imposed or otherwise; but, without any constraints, we are creating ex nihilo, and can easily lose our way. Paradoxically then, a constraint can become a tool of creation. … A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.”

Ian Thornton writes, “India’s culture of jugaad, or frugal innovation, has helped produce a wide range of sustainable breakthroughs.” [“The fruits of frugal innovation,” Green Futures Magazine, 1 February 2013] Thornton provides several examples of frugal innovations that are also environmentally friendly, such as an ATM “with the lowest power consumption in the world – up to 90% less than conventional alternatives” and a water filter that “is 50% cheaper than its nearest competitor, and can clean 3,000 litres without electricity or running water.” Radjou, Prabhu, and Ahuja insist, “Jugaad can bring value to conventional companies in a number of ways. They deliver economies of scope when companies need to tailor solutions to the specific needs of multiple customer segments in heterogeneous markets. They provide ‘soft’ capital by unleashing the passion of employees, business partners, and existing and potential customers. And they enhance flexibility to better manage unexpected challenges and harsh constraints through the improvisational use of limited resources.”

 

Frankly, not every challenge can be solved cheaply. Some challenges require the use of expensive equipment and/or take years of dedicated and expensive research. Bright B. Simons reports that the picture is a bit clouded when one asks whether or not the cost of innovation is decreasing. [“Is the Cost of Innovation Falling?HBR Blog Network, 29 October 2012] He writes:

“Put all this evidence together, and the innovation landscape looks like this: Technical complexity, social risk management (including lower tolerance for unintended consequences), diminishing returns, and talent challenges have all combined to raise the cost threshold of breakthrough innovation, even as downstream the costs of proliferation — reproducing, replicating, diffusing, disseminating, and indeed hacking innovation — have decreased. Think about the massive investments being made in innovation and R&D in the newly rich countries of Asia, like Singapore and China, and their struggles to produce truly groundbreaking innovation, and you will see the principle described above at work. Small companies and economically weak countries face an even more uphill struggle developing breakthrough innovations. But the falling cost of replicating breakthrough innovations gives them another advantage altogether: they can combine innovative outputs into what one may call ‘synthetic innovations.’ The synthetic innovator experiments with combinations of these outputs, using them as inputs, thus increasing her chance of hitting on a synergy no less disruptive than an actual breakthrough innovation, but significantly cheaper. Synthetic innovations are disruptive precisely because they are mongrels. They break down longstanding barriers across industries that incumbents invest a lot of capital to erect.”

I like the term mongrel innovation. Mongrel innovations embrace the principles of jugaad and reflect the pioneer spirit discussed above. Even the most sophisticated and expensive R&D efforts can benefit by embracing constraints. After all, every effort has some constraints — be they time, money, or talent. Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, the atomic scientist, once famously said, “We have no money, therefore we must think.” Putting constraints (artificial or real) on a challenge does exactly what Lord Rutherford indicated it would do — it makes us think. As a result, less can be more.