David Burrows
Nov 7, 2013

Sidestepping: It's a way of life

Sidestepping—finding a way around rules, institutions or other obstacles—is a deeply embedded cultural habit in many emerging markets. Corporations would do well to support it rather than resist.

David Burrows
David Burrows

Editor's note: This is the first in a series outlining three big behaviour shifts Flamingo Group observed in its "Game Changers" report, which the company produced along with Wolff Olins. Future installments will focus on 'making meaning' and 'shaping time'.

What’s intriguing about the Game Changers story emerging globally is how it inflects differently in different parts of the world. In the West, particularly, it’s a genuine phenomenon that, to quote the report, "Consumers no longer simply consume—they’re active, skeptical, creative, entrepreneurial.

But here in India, and many other parts of the emerging world in Asia and beyond, such an attitude is actually deeply culturally embedded. 'Sidestepping' is a very natural reflex.

The Hindi word jugaad captures much of the sentiment behind this attitude. Recently popularized for a global business audience by books such as Jugaad Innovation (as well as numerous TED talks), it is often translated as ‘frugal and flexible innovation’. But the spirit it describes is profoundly a sidestepping spirit: ingenuity, lateral thinking, bending the rules, gaming the system, doing whatever it takes as long as it works.

Many other cultures have a word for this kind of approach to life: In Brazil they say jeitinho (capturing the sense of ‘finding a way’), and in China they talk about zizhu chuangxin (clumsily translated as ‘indigenous innovation’). But jugaad captures best both the creativity and the resourcefulness of the thought.

Sidestepping (rules, institutions, people who get in your way) is people’s response to a system that does not work for them. And in India, people don't merely sidestep out of pragmatic necessity: they often take genuine delight in doing it.

As elsewhere in the world, access to new technologies has boosted such behaviours—but the change in India has been nothing short of seismic. In 2000, there were 28.5 million telephones (mostly landlines) for a population of more than 1 billion. Now, for a population closer to 1.3 billion, there are almost 1 billion SIM cards alone. According to a 2012 survey, more Indians have used a mobile phone than a toilet!  And now mobile penetration is higher than that of TV.

So an already pervasive tendency to question, compare, probe, mistrust, or emulate institutions—and find alternatives—has been massively reinforced by the technological tools to do this in ever more areas of life.

  • Fishermen can bypass the middleman, making calls from out at sea to find out which port will give them the best price for their haul. 
  • Shaadi.com, now the world’s largest matrimonial website, has helped Indians sidestep the quintessentially oppressive traditional Indian institution of arranged marriage, offering a vastly wider set of options, and a whole new concept: the ‘arranged love marriage’.
  • Indigo has outmanoeuvred both the established carriers and low-cost airlines, offering first-class service at budget prices.
  • Amitabh Bachchan, the godfather of Bollywood, fed up with the treatment he was receiving from traditional media, is credited with almost singlehandedly getting India onto Twitter—revolutionizing the way megastars interact with their fans.
  • Even the Indian government sidestepped its own sluggish bureaucratic system by crowdsourcing the new rupee symbol!
  • And at the simplest level, millions every day bypass the telecom companies with the shared ‘language’ of ‘missed calls’ (one ring for ‘my parents are home—call later’, two for ‘I’m free now’, etc.). This is not innovation, it’s simply using existing technology in your own way.

Most of these examples aren’t about rejecting authority or rejecting brands; people are still looking to brands to inform, educate, channel their aspirations.

And yet corporate India (much like corporations in many others places) still largely seems to view such behavior as problematic, unpredictable, hard to control. Rather than seeing the spirit of jugaad as a powerful energy to be harnessed, marketing departments tend to throw up their hands at reality’s failure to fit their finely honed brand models. Many boardrooms and marketing departments (and, dare we say it, advertising agencies) have become dislocated from the very culture they emanate from.

But tools that allow sidestepping in more and more areas of life present businesses with rich opportunities to enter into new, more fluid, and potentially far more fruitful reciprocal relationships with people. Brands can now genuinely share their purpose, play an active role in the ecosystem, and be part of the collective world their consumers inhabit.

This is really the story of ‘The New Mainstream’ for India. The businesses that tap into India’s DNA can free themselves from fearing jugaad and instead make themselves integral to helping people sidestep whatever is getting in the way (as shaadi.com has so successfully done). They too can take delight in gaming the system, to the mutual advantage of both brand and consumer.

David Burrows is CEO of Flamingo Mumbai. 

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