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Rediscovering Resourcefulness In A Digital Age

When everything is at your fingertips, how do you spark the creativity that makes for great innovation?

Rediscovering Resourcefulness In A Digital Age
[Top photo: somchai rakin via Shutterstock]

In economics there is a theory called the resource curse. It says that if you are a country lucky enough to find you are rich in a natural resource (Nigeria, say, with oil), your good fortune is only temporary, that initial apparent blessing tends to lead you to behave in ways that mean you go on to perform worse than countries who start with less. It’s not inevitable (the Norwegians seem to be having a pretty good time of it), but that tends to be the way it goes.

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Indians have an expression called jugaad that can mean an innovative fix using few resources. While this thinking may conjure up the enterprising street merchant, the meaning is often used to signify creativity to make existing things work or to create new things with meager resources.

In the digital age, this mindset becomes even more advantageous. We might naturally see the equivalent of jugaad as the McGyver-like kluge of Silicon Valley. But it goes much further than this: crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are simply the most celebrated instances of the world’s ability to give us the ability to access a scale and speed of resources to help us compete, whatever our size, in a competitive world where the fast eat the slow. The definition of our resources today is no longer those that we have been given or directly control, but those around us we can access. But this only works if we have the mindset to see it that way, and the resourcefulness to access it.

Vadim Petrakov via Shutterstock

In business, resource limitations lead to great leaps. I recently had the privilege of working on the global positioning of Mahindra’s automotive group. Jugaad has been a formative philosophy in the development of their hugely successful range of international best-selling Mahindra Scorpio vehicles. Digital innovations have enabled them to collaborate with a series of global partners that only a few years ago would have been impossible. Through these partners, they are able to develop products at much less cost than what more traditional car companies would spend. Constraint leads to collaboration and new partnerships. Pawan Goenka, CEO of Mahindra’s global automotive group told me “In today’s economically and resource challenged business world, this constraint thinking is incredibly powerful. At Mahindra it’s seen as a source of strength.”

In this new digital age, the resource curse is alive and well–especially in business. The smaller, more constrained businesses and brands that flourish do so because those limitations force them to be resourceful, and make those resources work much harder when they find them. Writers Adam Morgan and Mark Barden discuss this changing nature of resourcefulness in their new book entitled A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages And Why It Matters: “Sometimes the greatest fertility is to be found,” they say, “when you have next to nothing of something you think you really need.”

They cite the example of Virgin America, using a variety of strategic partners such as Victoria’s Secret, Google, and HBO at launch to offer innovative inflight experiences to compensate for their tiny conventional marketing budget relative to the competition. If they’d had a comparable marketing budget, they wouldn’t have needed to find new ways to add value in the cabin.

Another threat to traditional companies is how businesses from India, China, Brazil, Columbia, Turkey, Dubai and other countries have used a constraint culture–namely having fewer resources than the traditional American corporations–to out-innovate and leapfrog their larger U.S. competition. Case in point is Tata’s IT group, Mahindra’s IT division, China’s Huawei or Brazil’s InBev.

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What does this mean for the rest of us? Morgan and Barden argue that to force that fertility in our own businesses we need to become much better at proactively putting constraints on ourselves.

We understand this with kids; kids without constraints don’t flourish. In the Western world, they have so much available to them that they need constraints of all kinds to help them focus, and fight for what they really want.

We adults are no different. The digital world has opened up so much access and choice and availability that becoming really good at using constraints–either self-imposed as well as dictated by external forces–is going to be at the heart of how we all progress in the future. As Arianna Huffington puts it: “A world of too much data, too many choices, too many possibilities and too little time is forcing us to decide what we value.” And what we need to value more is constraints.

As a creative problem-solving junkie, I recognize very clearly that we all need to see constraints as things that stimulate us to think better and more originally, rather than forces of constriction and limitation. But what, I wonder, does it mean to be resourceful in the digital age? Once again I asked Morgan and Barden. They argue for what they call “adjacent abundance,” the idea that all the resources we think we are scarce in are in fact around us; we just need to find a way to access them, or make the people that own them want to share them with us. The clothing company Betabrand is scarce in marketing budget, so it designs clothes with a philosophy of “99% fiction, 1% fashion”–like its famous Cordarounds–because it knows if it can create a story in each product, people will do the work of sharing their product news digitally for them. (You don’t see Gap thinking like that.) There are lots of people who will tell your story for you–adjacent abundance–if you make putting a great story into your products part of your manufacturing capability.

Being resourceful has never been easier. As long as we all learn to think that way.