The great Indian jugaad is not a skill. It is how we work with impractical corporate policies

‘Jugaad or “hustle” has become a positive trait to be demonstrated in current times,’ says Minaxi Indra, business leader and president, UpGrad for Business. ‘In my experience it seems to be a glorified substitute for a lack of planning. As a business, while a hundred per cent certainty isn’t possible, it can definitely be managed by process adherence and business planning. Escalations have unfortunately become a faster way to achieve the outcome rather than a last resort for help by the aggrieved team/party. In one of my previous sales roles, colleagues seen as hustlers were appreciated. They over-committed deliverables to customers and increased their deal sizes. This led to internal servicing teams being pushed against the wall to compensate for this over-commitment by either stretching, becoming “jugaado” themselves or raising exceptional approvals to deliver on the promised outcomes. Many a times jugaad is seen as a worthy synonym for being innovative while in reality it’s anything but this.’

Escalations, in theory, are supposed to be exceptions. Clients or colleagues are meant to appeal to the higher-ups to turn up the pressure in case of gross incompetence or negligence. In practice, escalations are now so common and expected that they are part of the process. We appear to believe that things cannot happen without due pressure and escalation. Many stressed and stretched workers actually wait for the escalation to make the task a priority. Ritu, senior manager at a global technology company, says, ‘In one instance, the global finance team took a harsh stance against a demand of some of the partners to relax the company’s credit terms. They did not want to give in and allow this to become the norm of their partner deals. This was, in part, also a test to check how many of the partners would accept this stance and how many would escalate their demands to the senior management. All the other countries accepted the stance, but partners in India continued to escalate it to the highest levels, so the terms were relaxed but only for India.’

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I conducted a poll on LinkedIn in October 2020 to check the use of jugaad in Indian corporate culture based on people’s personal experiences. It’s interesting to note that the pattern of the results forms a bell curve, like a normal distribution. If we had a similar pattern with a much larger set of corresponding data, it would suggest that what we like to think of as a behavioural outlier or exception might actually be the norm.

‘When there is too much work pressure and politics, you have to be diplomatic. To know what to say or not to say— this is neither honest nor dishonest,’ says Rahul, a team leader at a technology firm in Delhi. ‘You have to be adaptable and change yourself to be able to work in the corporate world. I feel I got my first promotion because I changed my work ethic and mentality and I was also good with the office politics,’ he adds. Indians often have a flair for the dramatic. In our heads, we are the heroes of our very own Bollywood movies, which teach us that brute strength or honest intelligence can only take us so far. Victory requires a little more, something hatke (different). The Mahabharata is full of micro stories of rules being bent, avoided and even broken for the sake of a win. Reframing a moral or ethical breach as ‘jugaad’ makes it more palatable to the conscience.

Kabir, who works in sales for an up-and-coming travel start-up in Bangalore, says, ‘I’m a Muslim, I don’t drink. So, I don’t go to bars, not even to meet up with potential clients. But, you know, my competitors would convince them to go to a bar, do whatever possible, give them whatever needed but see to it that their deal takes place. In fact, for competition, people have sent the wrong people to our property, and we’ve sent the worst people to their property.’ Kalyani Capoor says, ‘A brain that’s wired for threat perception, a work environment that’s driven by pressure and a cultural conditioning that fosters competition often leave little, if any room for ethics. Neurologically speaking, this triad acts as a perfect trigger for the emergency response of fight, flee or freeze. The more evolved cortical centres of the brain are then hijacked and it’s these cortical centres that regulate our moral judgement and ethical decisions.’

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This is a reason why compliance is generally so difficult in India. We have a poor rating on the ease of doing business.1 Layer that reality with processes and policies that are often designed for a theoretical fantasy. Add a few more layers for our competitive ambition, our eagerness to please the boss and a belief that we can only rely on our own ingenuity. Ashok Capoor says, ‘The bureaucracy and unpredictability of the Indian business environment make compliance with global norms of doing business quite difficult. Business leaders need to set down clear guidelines that are sensitized to local business conditions and empower employees to adhere to them.

If there is too much focus on short-term business deliverables alone, then compliance may likely suffer.’ The situation over the last two years has been reinforcing our need for, and our reliance on, jugaad. Yet, just as we now expect doctors, vaccine makers, governments and businesses to deliver us from this uncertain limbo to more sustainable and long-term solutions, we also need a macro perspective for our choices in life and at work.

Jugaad is not a skill. It is a compulsion. We have a historical preference to be subversive rather than petition unsympathetic authorities or to submit to systems we don’t trust. We have developed jugaad rather than patience, driven by intense pressure, competitiveness and short-term thinking. Imagine the possibilities if the same ingenuity that drives jugaad was instead empowered to create real, long-lasting solutions that aligned purpose, people and profit for our businesses.

The Company We KeepThis excerpt from Divya Khanna’s ‘The Company We Keep’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.


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