Jugaad and Bricolage

Business Week* reports on a management fad from India, that goes by a Hindi slang word, jugaad (say joo-gaardh). It means “an improvisational style of innovation”. It’s “inexpensive invention on the fly”. It sometimes has negative connotations, like cutting corners. The idea is that it doesn’t have to be perfect or fancy; it’s just good enough to satisfy immediate needs. (Implicit in the Western fascination with this concept is the assumption that Westerners want products to satisfy more than basic needs, like to match their lifestyle, or provide admirable aesthetic design, or conform to their hip identity.)

This term reminds me of a French term famously associated with the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who died in 2009 at the age of one hundred. The term was bricolage and it loosely translates into English as “tinkering” or simply making do with whatever stuff you have lying around. A tinkerer, or bricoleur in French, is someone who fixes things quickly and cheaply. Levi-Strauss famously argued that mythical thought was bricolage. (In today’s French the word has somewhat different connotations of do-it-yourself; a store like Lowe’s or Home Depot would support your bricolage.)

So jugaad is not really new at all. It’s improvisational creativity, and it’s the source of all innovation.

*Reena Jana, December 14, 2009, “From India, the latest management fad”. page 57.

Massively Collaborative Mathematics

I like this story from the 15 October  2009 issue of the journal Nature, about how a pair of blogs allowed dozens of contributors to collaboratively solve a theorem that no single mathematician had been able to solve: the Density Hales-Jewitt Theorem (DHJ for short). The mathematician who created the blog was Timothy Gowers, a Professor at the University of Cambridge and a holder of the Fields Medal, the highest honor a mathematician can receive. Even someone of Gowers’ high caliber was not able to solve the theorem. So he decided to try an experiment: He posted on his blog an invitation, to join a collaborative process of working on the theorem. He called it “The Polymath Project.”

Gowers’ blog regularly had thousands of readers, including many of the world’s top mathematicians, so the blog thread soon had thousands of words and dozens of top mathematical thinkers participating. Six weeks later, the theorem was proven and the proof will be submitted to a top math journal, under the collective name “D.H.J. Polymath”. The Nature article describes a creative process just like the one that creativity researchers have identified, of creativity as a series of small insights, as described in my book Group Genius:

For the first time one can see on full display a complete account of how a serious mathematical result was discovered. It shows vividly how ideas grow, change, improve and are discarded, and how advances in understanding may come not in a single giant leap, but through the aggregation and refinement of many smaller insights.

The article concludes:

We believe that this will lead to the widespread use of mass collaboration in many fields of science, and that mass collaboration will extend the limits of human problem-solving ability.

Failures Make You Stronger

Mutilated Checkerboard
Mutilated Checkerboard

I’ve just read a classic psychological study* by Mary Gick and Susan McGarry, published in 1992. They conducted a series of four experiments to test whether your problem solving ability could be enhanced, if you had previously worked on a very similar type of problem. The target problem was the “mutilated checkerboard” problem (see figure at right). The problem is: “You are given a checkerboard and 32 dominoes. Each domino covers exactly two adjacent squares on the board. Thus, the 32 dominoes can cover all 64 squares of the checkerboard. Now suppose two squares are cut off at diagonally opposite corners of the board. If possible, show how you would place 31 dominoes on the board so that all of the 62 remaining squares are covered. If you think it is impossible, give a proof of why.”

In order to solve the problem, you have to discover the “parity” rule: No covering is possible, because each domino must cover one black and one red square, and because the two black corners have been removed, there are two more red squares than black squares.

Gick and McGarry then developed several other problems, that are analogous to the mutilated checkerboard in that they require a “parity representation” to be solved. Some of them were easy to solve, and some were harder. For example, the easy problem was: 20 men and 20 women are at a dance. If two of the women leave, is it then possible for the remaining people to form 19 male-female couples? Solving this problem did not later increase performance on the checkerboard problem (which I find a bit surprising, but continue reading…)

Then, they developed another analogous problem, with men and women being seated at a dinner party. Most people failed to solve this problem at first, but when they received a hint, they could solve it. And the surprise is: failing at first, but then getting the hint, resulted in increased performance on the checkerboard problem! Their conclusion:

“source solution failures that are analogous to target solution failures facilitate spontaneous transfer” (p. 635). Wonderful paper!

*Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 1992, Vol. 18, No. 3,623-639

Wu Ming

No, it’s not a band, it’s a writer’s collective in Bologna, Italy. This is the group that has collaboratively authored several best-selling novles, including Q and ’54Q was published under the name “Luther Blissett” (after a “cultural guerilla warfare” project in 1994 where hundreds of people around Europe pulled off hoaxes using the name “Luther Blissett”). According to the Guardian newspaper, this was “a 650-page historical spy novel that used the Reformation as a multivalent allegory for the ups and downs of 20th century anticapitalism” (14 Nov 2009). Their later books were published under the name “Wu Ming” which they say means “anonymous” in Mandarin.

The group has five members and they often go by the names “Wu Ming 1”, “Wu Ming 2,” etc.  They don’t mind their identities being made public, but they won’t allow photographs or go on television; even their solo books are published under the Wu Ming name. The idea is to reject the myth of solo authorship.

How do they collaborate? They meet every day or two, and email constantly. Each word is edited by every member, so no one person’s “style” comes through; it is a collective style.

There are other successful writer’s collectives, like Hothouse in Britain; they won the 2007 Waterstone prize with their teenage novel Darkside. These examples challenge our notions of artistic vision and literary style; they question our myth of the writer as a solitary genius.

Innate Cooperation

A new book by Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate, presents evidence that babies are born to be social and to help others. Tomasello argues that helping others is genetic, rather than learned. This is an important contribution to the “altruism” debate–why would a rational (i.e. self-interested) person expend energy helping someone else? The standard answer (of the rational choice/microeconomist paradigm) has been that helping is a social norm that emerges because, over time, helping someone else ultimately results in a gain for the helper. And once the social norm emerges, children learn it during socialization.

Tomasello’s book presents data showing that infants as young as 18 months old try to help others. For example, if they see an unrelated adult who needs help picking up a dropped object, they help right away. From the age of 12 months, if an adult pretends to have lost an object that the child can see, the child will point to the object. Eighteen or twelve months is too early for such behavior to have been learned from parents. As another piece of evidence, Tomasello reports that children don’t begin to help more after they’re rewarded for helping–which suggests it’s not influenced by training.

Tomasello also talks about research into how helping behavior evolves as children get older. When they’re three, they begin to get more selective; they’re nicer to another child who was just nice to them. And, they begin to expect other children to follow the same norms of helpfulness.

This argument seems to support the theory that helping behavior was selected for during evolution, which is consistent with the rational choice models of altruism. Regardless of the mechanism, I’m glad that we’re all this way!