Too fat to innovate?

13 February 2014 16:56

(updated: 18 December 2016 16:58)

Too fat to innovate?

In the practical arts and the fine arts, bricolage (French for “tinkering”) is the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available.

Bricoleurs “play with possibilities and use available resources to find workable solutions”. It is sometimes argued that bricoleurs have an “acquired taste” for inventiveness and develop a critical perspective of the competitors who use resources in standard ways.

In the latest issue of Journal of Product Innovation Management (JPIM, March 2014), bricolage is a frequently occurring construct and several papers there discuss whether innovation actually is greater when resources are scarce and the “bricoleurs” enter the stage.

Innovation often takes place in the absence of appropriate conditions. Entrepreneurial product innovation, for instance, tends to occur in environments characterized by severe and persistent resource constraints. The notion of increased innovation in resource-poor environments is as old as creativity itself, but as an academic field it is fairly nascent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that improvisation and frugal innovations occur when resources are scarce. The current issue of JPIM tries to empirically scrutinize these claims.

Several studies in the issue support the notion of “bricolage” in innovation: For instance, Senyard, Baker, Steffens, and Davidsson in their article “Bricolage as a path to innovativeness for resource-constrained new firms” empirically focuses on new firms, which often struggle to innovate effectively and precisely because of their constrained access to financial resources. This puts them in a situation where they rarely are able to invest in lengthy and expensive development processes. To uncover which processes these firms use as alternative pathways for innovation, the authors conducted interviews with individuals from over 600 firms. They find that bricolage provides an important pathway to achieve innovation for new resource-constrained firms. These resource-constrained firms engage in the processes of “recombination” that are core to creating innovative outcomes.

In another paper, Weiss, Hoegl, and Gibbert report on a study of 121 innovation projects in the electronics industry under the title “Perceptions of material resources in innovation projects: What shapes them and how do they matter?” Their point of departure is that “adequacy” of resources may not be an objective attribute of projects, but may instead depend on individuals’ perceptions of the (in-)adequacy of the resources available to the project. Their reasoning suggests that success may depend not so much on the absolute (or objective) level of resources, but on just how they are perceived. Perceived resource scarcity leads to more novel products and services.

Suggesting managerial implications based on these studies are tricky, though: It is of course tempting to suggest a heavy budget cut on all innovation projects to ignite feelings of scarcity and heavy resource constraints. Perhaps large corporations are just too fat to innovate?