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The MacGyvers of entrepreneurship: How to make bricolage your superpower

Have you ever cooked a delicious meal from leftovers or ingredients that didn’t seem to complement each other very well?

Have you ever created a nice outfit from a combination of old clothes?

Have you ever furnished your house with excess decorations and spare parts that other people would throw away?

If yes, you may be what I like to call a MacGyver of entrepreneurship and really good at entrepreneurial bricolage.

In case you don’t know who MacGyver is, he is a fictional TV character who repeatedly saves the world from bad guys. He could make his life easier by using a gun but he refuses. Instead, he creates hand grenades from pine cones, airplanes from trash bags, and computers from paperclips.

MacGyver manages to defuse a bomb that was going to explode in one second.

What is entrepreneurial bricolage?

When entrepreneurs face new problems they have three options. They can either leave the problem unsolved, acquire new resources to solve it, or enact entrepreneurial bricolage.

The word “bricolage” is derived from the French verb “bricoler” which means “to tinker” or “do-it-yourself” (DIY). For entrepreneurial bricolage however, there is a deeper meaning.

In entrepreneurship, bricolage is creating something from nothing by making do and applying combinations of resources at hand to new problems and opportunities1.

This kind of hands-on approach and “creative reinvention2” involves developing solutions through resource repackaging, transposing, and recombining. It also implies the entrepreneur’s refusal to see limitations on known existing resources. So basically, a bricoleur, or a handyman, always looks for a solution even when not possessing suitable resources or skills designed for that specific context3.

Just like MacGyver.

Solving problems with limited resources: Entrepreneurial bricolage

One of my favorite examples of such creative thinking is The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan group of young musicians who live at a landfill and whose instruments are made from scrap materials. They have become so famous that they even played with Stevie Wonder and Metallica. Watch them play on the video below.

We have recently seen some amazing examples of entrepreneurial bricolage. Bricolage has not emerged as a result of the pandemic (see here for opportunities resulting from the pandemic), but it has forced us to come up with creative solutions at an accelerated rate. In the absence of unlimited personal protective and medical equipment, individuals with entrepreneurial mindset and large companies started to develop something they had never done before.

For example, see below how Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit designed a mass-producible ventilator in just a few days. What the company actually does is it provides launching services for small satellites; something completely different from medical ventilators.

Although the theory of entrepreneurial bricolage is best understood in environments characterized by low level of available resources, the example of Virgin Orbit involves all three main aspects of the concept: actively solving a new problem by combining whatever is at hand.

Another example are shoe companies that started making face masks by using different parts of old shoes that would do the job.

For the bricoleurs the looks of their new solution is not always relevant. The most important aspect is that it works. That it solves the problem. Then later on the solution can be improved little by little. A great example of this are the people around the world with creative (and very funny) personal protective gear.

How can you make entrepreneurial bricolage your superpower?

In times of extreme uncertainty, bricolage becomes even more important for entrepreneurs trying to survive and/or grow. By practicing bricolage you can avoid unnecessary costs, train your brain for creative problem solving, and utilize old resources that would otherwise remain unused.

Sometimes bricolage can even be very impressive like in the case of The Recycled Orchestra. This could make you interesting for the public or demonstrate your creative capabilities and thus attract investors and partners.

But how to start? How can you become a bricoleur?

I suggest a 5-step approach that doesn’t have to be very rigorously followed but that serves as a guideline for your thinking as you go.

1. Understand that entrepreneurial bricolage is an amazing skill

Bricolage is problem solving in the form of creative improvisation. It is magic. It is creating something from nothing while saving resources. Bricolaging skills have saved MacGyver’s life and they can save your business too. And not only save it in times of economic crisis but also help it grow in better times.

Skills are not inherited but learned. The first step of learning how to become a bricoleur is to understand that this skill needs to be developed. Some “professional bricoleurs” and do-it-yourself experts go even further and say bricolage is a lifestyle. That you get satisfaction of solving problems creatively and never even think about ordering things from Amazon before having tried to solve the problem yourself.

A man uses a half of a pizza box to create pizza plates for his friends.

And we all know how much people appreciate those who can solve problems in ways we never thought was possible. The simplest example in trying to understand this is the amazing do-it-yourself dad who fixes everything at home and builds hockey goals and other fun for the kids.

2. Recognize that environments are socially constructed

Why do entrepreneurs differ in their level of bricolage?

One extremely important reason for that is how they view their environment. Some see rules, obstacles, and expensive resources that can be acquired from professional suppliers, while others see fast and cheap solutions everywhere. The latter type either doesn’t understand the obstacles or “refuses” to see them as constraints1.

This fundamental difference in how entrepreneurs view the world is decisive for how they engage in bricolage. Their view in turn depends on their beliefs, experiences, and associations that are largely derived from social interactions with others.

So the more time you spend with someone who engages in bricolage, the more likely it is that you are also going to engage in bricolage.

A boy is putting together pieces of electronics spare parts.

3. Remember the importance of selective bricolage1

Entrepreneurs can enact bricolage in five areas.

1) Physical assets by using discarded, worn, or presumed single-application materials for new purposes.
2) Labor inputs by activating customers, suppliers, and hangers-on.
3) Skills by daring and encouraging the use of amateur and self-taught skills that would otherwise remain unapplied.
4) Markets by offering products and services that would otherwise not be available.
5) Institutional and regulatory environment by actively trying new things while either not knowing the exact rules or refusing to see them as constraints.

And now here’s an important point.

Applying bricolage extensively in many or even all areas on a continuous basis can become a major obstacle for your business to grow. The reason for this is that you develop an identity associated with parallel bricolage (simultaneous bricolage in multiple areas) that ultimately leads you to think that everything can be done through bricolage. This is a so-called bricolage trap.

Bricolage should be applied selectively.

Sometimes entrepreneurs have to invest large amounts of money in things that should be taken care of in a professional manner. Like online appearance, safety features of a product, as well as accounting and taxation. Selective bricolage allows for fast elimination of bottle necks while also strengthening the base for growth.

4. Start practicing

There is a number of ways for how to become a seasoned bricoleur. The best way is to practice. Here, I’ll give you a few suggestions for how to start.

Start thinking about how you can recombine, reuse, and repurpose anything you have at home and you’re not really using. Unapplied skills count as well!

Also, before you throw things away, think about whether or not you could use them for something like growing plants, fixing other things, or creating small containers for stuff to keep organized. A recent article in Guardian is a fantastic resource that can help you reduce waste in 10 ways.

Think twice before you buy things. It’s super easy nowadays to buy something from Amazon, and sometimes we really need those things. Or do we, really? What if we already have everything we need to do it ourselves?

There’s a number of great online accounts addressing the greatest lifehacks and do-it-yourself tricks, for example on Pinterest and Instagram. You can follow a few of them and learn something new every day or just google for tips whenever you need a solution.

Finally, question your choices. Do you really need to pay for the best business software to do your analysis when you can do it yourself on Excel or use free apps. And do you really need your own office and all the fancy furniture when you can bricolage something much cooler and practice your creativity?

5. Share your creative solutions with others

I have talked to a number of people about bricolage. Many of them are entrepreneurs, home chefs, construction workers, designers, and IT hardware or software experts. One of the most interesting underlying motivators for people to engage in bricolage is the feeling of having created something on their own.

A woman explains to her four friends how she solved a problem using bricolage.

A web designer told me that she had bricolaged a code that allowed for a function on her online shop. She was embarrassed about it but once she shared the solution with others who had the same problem, she unexpectedly received praise and thank you messages resulting in a great emotional and motivational boost encouraging her for further and better problem solving.

If we knew how many people are struggling with the same problems as we are, we would probably try harder, be more motivated to find a solution, and dare to share our concerns and suggestions.

How to make bricolage your superpower

In conclusion

This article leaves you with two key takeaways.

First, I explained what entrepreneurial bricolage is and how it has been applied by entrepreneurs and others such as The Recycled Orchestra from Paraguay. Bricolage is not a new concept (see references below) but I argue that its practical potential has not been realized to the extent it should be.

Second, I provided a 5-step approach to making bricolage your superpower. It is very important to first understand how bricolage works and that too much of bricolage (parallel bricolage) may be detrimental for your business growth, while selective bricolage may be the best way to apply it. And because bricolage is a skill, you will have to practice.

My final thought to conclude is: Whenever you have a problem and you’re about to place an order via Amazon, think about this:

What would MacGyver do?

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References

1Baker, T. & Nelson, R. 2005. Creating Something from Nothing: Resource Construction through Entrepreneurial Bricolage. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50: 329-366.
2 Rice, R. & Rogers, E. 1980. Reinvention in the innovation process. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization, 1: 499-514.
3 Levi-Strauss, C. 1966. The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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