While much is made of purposeful innovation labs and high tech solutions, much innovation happens by cobbling things together on the go and seeing what works.
When we’re looking to respond to a changing situation, innovation, and create something new to serve the examples often shared are dissatisfying. That’s how I feel about most case studies: they don’t reflect reality all that well.
Most of my clients are poorly positioned to innovate judged against this standard. Yet, I see remarkable innovation because what they lack in resources, we foster in creative thinking about what resources they have.
That’s how much innovation takes places, especially in the non-profit world or in the public service. This ‘use what you have’ approach is part of what’s called bricolage. The term has many meanings and all of them map on to innovation. The definition from Wikipedia illustrates this well:
Bricolage is a French loanword that means the process of improvisation in a human endeavor. The word is derived from the French verb bricoler (“to tinker”), with the English term DIY (“Do-it-yourself”) being the closest equivalent of the contemporary French usage. In both languages, bricolage also denotes any works or products of DIY endeavors.Wikipedia
Let’s look at what it means to engage in bricolage.
Bricolage is a term that originated from the French language and refers to the practice of creating something new or making repairs using whatever materials and tools are available. It can be thought of as a form of do-it-yourself (DIY) construction or creation, often involving the use of unconventional or found objects.
The concept of bricolage was popularized by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who used it to describe a mode of thinking and problem-solving in various cultural contexts. In his book “The Savage Mind,” Lévi-Strauss argued that bricolage was a characteristic feature of “primitive” societies, where individuals would utilize materials at hand to build or adapt tools, objects, or structures to suit according to their needs. Like much early anthropology, Levi’s work on bricolage was better as a description (what was done) than an attribution (primitive).
Bricolage has evolved in its use and interpretation and now often refers to the creation of new works by combining existing elements or repurposing found materials. It celebrates the creative act of recontextualization, improvisation, and resourcefulness.
Bricolage and Innovation
Overall, bricolage emphasizes the ability to make do with limited resources and find innovative solutions by utilizing what is readily available, fostering creativity, and challenging traditional notions of craftsmanship and construction.
Innovation literature has also incorporated the concept of bricolage to describe certain approaches and strategies employed by individuals and organizations in the process of innovation.
- Resourcefulness and Creativity: Bricolage in the context of innovation emphasizes the ability to work with existing resources, often in unconventional ways, to create something new. It highlights the importance of resourcefulness and creativity in overcoming constraints and finding innovative solutions. Bricolage approaches both require and foster creativity.
- Nonlinear Problem-Solving: Bricolage is used when straightforward, prescriptive solutions aren’t practical or available. Sometimes described as a nonlinear problem-solving approach, bricoleurs engage in iterative experimentation, adapting and combining available resources and ideas to address complex problems. In this regard, bricolage-style thinking is akin to design thinking.
- Opportunistic Exploration: Bricolage is characterized by a willingness to explore and experiment with diverse materials, technologies, and knowledge domains. Bricoleurs actively engage with situations in ways that can lead to new insights and connections, leveraging a broad range of resources. This enkindles innovation.
- Hybrid Solutions: Bricolage involves the synthesis of disparate elements and the creation of hybrid solutions. Innovators who employ bricolage often combine existing technologies, ideas, or approaches in novel ways, resulting in innovative products, services, or processes that draw from multiple sources.
- Frugal Innovation: Bricolage is closely associated with the concept of frugal innovation, which focuses on creating cost-effective solutions using limited resources. Bricoleurs excel in finding creative workarounds and making the most of what is available, enabling them to deliver affordable and sustainable innovations.
Bricolage is embodied in the concept of a kit of parts.
The Kit of Parts
No one understands bricolage better than the non-profit sector. Charities, Foundations, NGO’s, and other community groups (including many in health sector) rarely, if ever, have a full innovation kit. Nor do they operate in straightforward conditions where connecting causes, effects, and outcomes are prescriptive enough to use ‘off the shelf’ style innovation tools with high confidence.
Yet, the need for innovation — doing new and different things — is an everyday reality. This is a good sector to watch if you want to better understand how bricolage functions in support of innovation. But the situation can easily be applied to small and medium-sized business and corporate partnerships, too.
This is where the idea of a “kit of parts” comes in. A kit of parts refers to a collection of things — tools, theories, methods, or others resources — that can be combined and reconfigured to create various solutions or designs to meet the context. This is because the situation demands it or because there aren’t the optimal or ideal resources (knowledge, tools, expertise) available.
It’s about making do with what you have. It’s also a mentality.
The kit of parts approach allows for flexibility, adaptability, and reusability. Innovators can mix and match different components, repurpose materials, and combine them in creative ways to address specific challenges. It encourages a modular and iterative approach, where solutions can be built, tested, and refined incrementally.
The Innovators Kit for the Kit of Parts
By utilizing a kit of parts, bricoleurs find a pathway around constraints, leveraging what’s available in novel ways. How can innovators set themselves up to take advantage of this? What is in the innovators’ kit of parts kit?
- Mentality. This is tied to a growth mindset – seeing possibilities and options, not just barriers. The mentality is also one tied to design thinking: envisioning possible futures and having a process to create them. Tied to this mentality is an element of play. Rather than be childish, play channels the growth mindset in the process of making things. It’s a powerful way to instill and support this mentality.
- Permission. By this I mean both permission from the innovator themselves and the innovator’s context. That means as employers or managers, we encourage and support those working with or for us to try things out. It means providing space to experiment and fail within our schedules, work plans, and physical environments where possible. It also means giving ourselves permission to do these things and to not fear failure, but recognize it as part of any experimental effort.
- Pens, Paper, + Physical Making Tools. A prototyping approach to creation is important. Having tools to help you visualize the various combinations and recombinations of things is a way to ‘see’ innovations before they happen. Even with programs and services, creating visuals of them in advance through things like storyboards, mind maps, or other visual thinking methods can help you to ‘get out of your head’ and to better communicate and collaborate.
- Inventory. An innovator requires a means to see what’s available — literally and figuratively. This is where having access to data, tools, people, and settings comes in. It’s less about whether we have all we need and more about knowing what we have to work with. Sometimes having a Talent Inventory can help.
- Evaluation. You can’t know change, improvement, or influence (impact) unless you have some means to gain feedback on what you’ve done. It’s difficult to improve if you have little feedback on your process. Evaluation methods — particularly those that are design-driven — can make a big difference.
With these five things in place. you’ve set yourself up to be a bricoleur. Just like with a LEGO set, get building something remarkable (and have fun, too).
You can design your organization to be ready for bricolage. Want some help? Let’s talk — this is what I do.