Frugal Innovation A Coronavirus Silver Lining

Renie Cavallari

A few years back I was lucky enough to go on a wild four-week adventure exploring India, understanding its business models, government, small business, investment strategies, and learning about frugal innovation. To say I was inspired is an understatement. At the opening session of the EO (Entrepreneurial Organization) Global Conference, my mind-blowing experience unfolded about frugal innovation. Though frugal innovation was not new to me, how I saw it shifted.

A few years back I was lucky enough to go on a wild four-week adventure exploring India, understanding its business models, government small business, investment strategies and learning about frugal innovation. To say I was inspired is an understatement. At the opening session of the EO (Entrepreneurial Organization) Global Conference, my mind-blowing experience unfolded about frugal innovation. Though frugal innovation was not new to me, how I saw it shifted.

Let’s start with the definition of frugal innovation. According to Navi Radjou & Jaideep Prabhu in an article published in Harvard Business Review:

Frugal innovation is more than a strategy. It denotes a new frame of mind: one that sees resource constraints not as a liability but as an opportunity — and one that favors agility over efficiency.

Human creativity is a natural, infinitely renewable resource and its coming up with smart, cheap solutions to people’s biggest problems,” states Navi Radjou.

Jugaad, the Hindi word that is used to descript these kind of solutions means improvised fix. Most of these solutions come out of necessity and adversity vs. pure innovation, and many are done due to the fact that resources like capital, education and R&D are not available.

Frugal innovation is no different than the graffiti artist who took a bad wall in a horrible neighborhood and made it into a place to visit and take your photo. I was inspired when exploring the muraled, colorful and storytelling walls throughout the neighborhood called District 13 Medellin in Columbia. This once scary neighborhood is now a tourist attraction with extraordinary graffiti murals that line the walls and are commissioned for a price to tell the story of this community.

Frugal innovation is an active thinking lab that you can have in your building. It’s scrappier than sophisticated and yet it has created things like clay fridges to keep fruits and veggies cold even in humid climates and solar-powered lights designed to make clean energy for rural communities. It creates value and solutions using resources that already exist and are likely right in front of you. It requires you to put on a different set of glasses much like a Kaleidoscope. As you look through a different lens your solutions are transformed through human imagination, collaboration and ingenuity.

Before my trip to India I hadn’t really explored frugal innovation, and then one day I was in a country with both extreme wealth and horrific poverty that has been leading the way. As the speaker took to center stage, he opened his speech with one simple question: “what is this?”

We all shouted out a plastic water bottle. Then he said, “and what is its use?” Of course, we looked annoyingly at him and said it is to hold water so you can take it with you and easily drink it. And then he said, “but what else?” I was intrigued.

As we all shuffled in our seats, he made the challenge all the clearer and stated, “I want you to come up with at least 10 ways to use this water bottle.”

As we all sat back and began our journey of frugal innovation, our individual minds began to open up. As time passed, he pushed us further and asked us to find five more ways. Before we knew we had 30 different ways to repurpose a plastic water bottle and stop the endless supply that is multiplying in landfills across the world.

A bird feeder. A paper weight. A flower vase. A child’s rattle or toy. A weapon. And the list went on and on. My mind was exploding with possibilities and then the real magic occurred as we began leveraging each other’s ideas and expanding into new potential solutions and innovations. One thing was very clear, our collaboration kept expanding as a derivative of one simple question, “what else?”

I wrote that question down. What else? I now use this question all the time to expand possible solutions, create new programming and ensure we are never just taking our initial ideas and settling.

What India did with all those endless water bottles that litter every square inch of the poorest communities was take them, fill them with dirt and sand (which they have an abundance of) and use them as insolation for the metal huts where so many of their poorest people live. This simple solution improved the quality of millions of people's living conditions. One man’s trash became another man’s source of cooling and heating system.

I love doing this exercise with teams as soon as someone makes that annoying statement, “it’s not in our budget.” I get it. We can’t spend what we don’t have and when you truly have nothing you start seeing what you do have. You look beyond what it is obvious, or an intended function or purpose. You look for “what else”.

Frugal innovation is happening all around us right now during this pandemic.

• Hotels housing health care workers and response teams.

• Restaurants taking vegetable and meat orders that they then put through to their local farmers to ensure they not only stay in business but that their customers didn’t have go into big grocery stores.

• Remote training and the use of technology has shifted what is possible in both remote work environments and better solutions than traditional online learning.

• Speakers around the globe are doing virtual keynotes from their home to the homes of thousands.

Getting Started

There is no better time than now to work with your team on frugal innovation as there are so many challenges to solve and opportunities to leverage. A few thoughts to get your team started:

• How can you leverage your technology? Give a call to your various providers and ask them how to save time, save cash, improve processes and leverage their ideas and mind.

• As you start to re-enter the market, rethink your training as there is a need for more training now than ever before. How do you do hospitality with social distancing and a mask? How can you train before they are back in the building?

• What outside sources can assist you? The internet is full of learning tools. Check with your training partners to explore what remote services they might be providing.

• As you re-onboard your team members, it’s a perfect time to re-energize your culture and brand to align your people and stimulate pride and enthusiasm. It is easier than ever as people want to belong and connect to a higher purpose and cause.

• How can you streamline check-in and check-out processes or do away with them completely?

• Revamp your housekeeping approach, creating new places to dine that provide social distancing outside of your restaurant spaces.

• How can you take open spaces and make them into unique experiences?

• Take that buffet that is of no use to you now and make it into an herb garden.

• Walk around your business. Where are the underutilized and undervalued resources?

RENIE CAVALLARI is founder, CEO and Chief lnstigator of aspire and an award winning international strategist and leadership expert. Since founding aspire in 1995, Cavallari has worked with thousands of organizations helping them optimize asset value, rethink everything and improve people performance. For more information, please reach out to

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