Bricolage in Modern Entrepreneurship
In today’s world of constant innovation and change, it is essential for any new project or problem-solving task to be addressed quickly and leanly, that is, without re-investing the wheel for each new issue that arises. This is a strong case in support of bricolage. In academia, “bricolage” is a term used to describe the process of using whatever tools and processes are immediately available.
The concept is most immediately familiar to fine artists and implies a combination of practicality and craftsmanship. The French source of our current usage meant to patch something up, but in the mid-twentieth century, it was used to describe “the sense of proceeding in an apparently disorganized and non-rational fashion, but nonetheless producing effective results.” It was favored by anthropologists, philosophers, and social commentators but, today, it begins to make its way into the practices of entrepreneurship.
Keeping businesses lean
Bricolage asks, “What do we have to work with, right now?”
For entrepreneurs who are often distracted by considering, what, “ideally,” they would do or like to have, the practice of bricolage can help to refocus thinking away from the ideal and toward the actual. In group-based situations, bricolage can help to control the scale and potential tangents of five people each trying to solve a problem from his or her own perspective.
In modern digital start-ups, bricolage was at work before anyone began to put a name to it, thanks to the “do it yourself” approach of many young, cash-strapped entrepreneurs who had to keep their businesses lean, and performed internal problem-solving out of financial necessity. (If a start-up’s budget is zero dollars, they learn to fix problems themselves instead of hiring extra assistance!)
Forms of Bricolage
In a literal sense of bricolage, an entrepreneur takes inventory of current assets (physical, financial, knowledge- and skill-based, and networking), and builds his strategy off of them exclusively, without bringing in or developing anything additional. However, in current business, bricolage may be less likely to refer to tangible assets, and it is more frequently applied to the practice of building solutions from the knowledge already available. It is the cousin to interdisciplinary work, which combines the abilities and differing perspectives of a diverse team of experts. This can circumvent, dispel, and even avoid the siloed thinking that gets in the way of innovation and profit-building.
How to apply bricolage
Whether the discussion is of tangible assets or knowledge/skill assets, bricolage will help guide the conversation with what is available. This produces immediately applicable, cost-effective solutions better than if a conversation is left entirely open to any expensive or unlikely ideas. Additionally, bricolage can be used to maintain consistency of product and branding. This is because, by its nature, is restricted by what already exists within a business. A solution reached through bricolage-style work will be, in essence, a mash-up or remix of what that business has done before.
Bricolage can happen on a broader scale, as well—API (application program interfaces) are the digital embodiment of bricolage, allowing businesses and industries to share resources on a vast, international scale, with nearly unlimited potential applications.
Upsides of bricolage
These probably do not need to be stated/re-stated in their entirety, but they include cost effectiveness, interdisciplinary problem-solving, avoiding information silos and potential duplicate work, and maximizing existing resources and investment.
Potential downsides of bricolage
Bricolage will focus work on discovery, rather than on creation. There are inherent downsides to this, of course. A group focused too narrowly on one solution might miss another opportunity altogether.
And there is also the danger of group-think; when a project team might be focused on finding a tangible and pragmatic solution within existing parameters, they can lose the desire to debate, which is crucial to maintaining an edge in business innovation. On the other hand, a perception of limitation and scarce resources might cause too much debate over the best way to use those resources. This classic problem can too easily devolve into a disagreement that ends with no solution.
A warning to young entrepreneurs
Lastly, bricolage-style thinking within a business might face resistance if leadership or employees (or both) feel that its restrictions distort or distract from the business’s primary mission.
This might be most prevalent in new businesses, for young entrepreneurs with great personal investment in the business. For some such employees, the business mission is paramount, and they will fight any strategy or decision which may seem to dilute the mission for the sake of practicality.
Overall, bricolage as a practice might not find the best solution in every situation. However, it fills a gap and offers a necessary perspective that combines pragmatism with innovation. It should certainly have a place in the toolbox of every entrepreneur, project manager, or thoughtful employee.