Bernard Pras Einstein

Bricolage: Innovation without destruction

Thomas Casteran Insights, Organization, Society Leave a Comment

‘Pour explorer le champ des possibles, le bricolage est la méthode la plus efficace’ (‘To explore the scope of possibilities, bricolage is the most efficient method’)
Hubert Reeves 

Yes, the world became extremely complex and it is fair to admit that we engage with problems and new challenges on a daily basis – on a personal and societal level. We strive to find new solutions most of the time by innovating. But what if solutions could emerge from our surrounding elements, our past experiences, our know-how, our social and professional networks, and above all, from what already exists, instead?

“Bricolage” comes to us as a potential way to innovate without wasting resources. Bricolage is the ability to combine available resources and « savoir-faire », or know-how, to achieve a goal. Its etymology comes from a traditional French expression that refers to crafts-people who creatively use leftovers from other projects, « odds and ends » and « at-hands » tools and materials to achieve other tasks and projects. In other words, bricolage is a way to overcome a problem or a challenge by combining disparate elements. Thus, bricolage shows ingenuity and creativity that emerge from the necessary reflection and know-how that enable the « bricoleur » to consider all the resources available, and his « can-do » attitude.

Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist and ethnologist, gave this definition of bricolage in La Pensée sauvage in 1962, and beyond the meaning of the word itself, he explains that bricolage is a mindset where the first step is retrospective. In a sense, there is a need to « take a step back in order to see the bigger picture ». A step back where the bricoleur analyses his available resources, digs into his past experiences and last but not least, reflects to find the possible « How-to » according to his resources. Thus, the approach of a bricoleur is different from the approach of an engineer, as the material used is not dedicated to a specific project. Therefore, the processes of bricolage are « much more flexible, fluid, and open-ended ». According to him, it can lead to unexpected but brilliant results.

Bricolage: experimenting, tolerating failures, stepping back and applying learnings

In other words, Bricolage is a specific state-of-mind, where the bricoleur often faces complex situations to solve, but this complexity can also be pleasant and playful, as Pablo Picasso once said “If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?”. The setting of Bricolage opens the door to creativity due to the fact that it represents a step-by-step process of experimentation associated to improvisation. In this context, the failure in experiments is allowed to a certain extent until the right combination is found.

Bernard Pras, a French artist, developed creative artworks by using a wide range of materials and the principle of anamorphic projection to recreate famous paintings. In his interview with AoA, he explains his process, where an idea grows in his mind between a specific range of materials and an image he wishes to conceptualize. Basing himself either on at-hands materials as he works in his studio or nearby his project location, Pras starts to draw a frame with big brushes in order to visualize more easily what kind of objects would help him to give life to the project. By doing so, he also accesses his past experiences and accesses his personal inventory to decide what to use later on. While he is working on a project, he uses a camera to take a picture of each step to verify his experiments “Anytime I place an object on the platform, I take a picture of it and analyses if it fits. It happens that I move it then, take another picture and so on, until the final place fits me best. There is a picture taken for each object that I use. It is an experimentation (…) and an improvisation“.

Organizational use of bricolage: design a future with the relics of your past

For organizations, bricolage could be a way to build from the past achievements by using the acquired experience, know-how, current and previous assets to develop future projects. This is what Jeff Clarke believes, current CEO of Kodak, ‘I’m mining the history of this company for its underlying technologies’. Although the firm missed the shift to the digital age and therefore saw both human capital and budget considerably reduced until a minimum, it reappeared on the market in 2013. Kodak invested in the past in research & development, and according to Clarke missed « enormous opportunities ». Thus, Clarke intends to use this legacy to develop corporate partnerships in order to market innovative products. A way to put Kodak on the right track again… And also to « recycle » the findings of the company that enabled it to survive and keep an activity over years: digital printing technologies. Taking this angle, the idea of Bricolage has also a sustainability tone as its mantra is to spare materials on the side with the idea of « we could still make something of it ». Since Bricolage is about using available resources, it is also a way to give a second life to what is left and in the case of Kodak, some of the past experimentations and projects are used as a basis for current and future projects.

As experienced by David Kayrouz, from Creative Pathways, bricolage can be used in workshop-settings as a catalyst for creative thinking. While working with a large telecommunication company experiencing problems with its network as it had just acquired another company, Kayrouz decided to set up a team composed of managers and technicians and to use Bricolage «…to redesign the network (of both companies). They were all highly specialized people with disparate views and responsibilities in a highly complex and volatile environment. In two and a half hours a team of twelve redesigned the network using a bricolage of pipe cleaners, colored lollipop sticks, paper cups, cello tape, string, plasticine, paper and post-it notes, all brought from the two-dollar shop! ». Such settings create a safe environment where the participants can experiment. The result was reported as a total success, enabling the team to come up with a creative solution. Besides Kayrouz noted that in spite of the process framework, the key piece has been undoubtedly the « ability for people to understand or see more and differently together using bricolage as a media for inquiry. » Considering the nature of bricolage, which always keeps materials on the side to recycle it later, an organization could save up unnecessary costs. Indeed, besides the success of the experiment of Kayrouz, there was also an economic dimension with not less than « $100,000.00 in costs saved in the first month ».

Beyond the fact that Bricolage enables people to come up with creative solutions and to develop their creative thinking by experimenting, it can also enhance the relationships within your company. With the help of the workshop-like settings, bricolage could be a way to improve knowledge sharing within your organization. This kind of experience can shape the attitude of people and make them curious about the perspectives of others. It is a way to discover a different angle for problem solving as it emerges from uniqueness of each individual and thus, people can learn from each other. Yet, bricolage is not just for workshops with a couple of people, but also for entire organizations and potentially as well for our global society.

Read more about it in the next part of our Bricolage feature next week.

Credit goes to Hendrik Achenbach for his support with this text.

Picture Source: Bernard Pras; Einstein


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