Frugal Innovation

The idea of innovation or an innovative company is in vogue. Whether it is the Silicon Valley startup, or the “innovative” CEO, that descriptor has much social currency in today’s world. In business school, one of my favorite classes was the class I took on with Professor Anil Gupta.

Professor Gupta introduced the class to several different constructs for innovation, but the one that spoke to me the most was a concept called Frugal InnovationFrugal Innovation is the idea that the creation of something new is low cost, low environmental impact, and low resource utilization. Professor Gupta provided examples including Southwest Airlines, GE’s portable ECG machine, and the Aravind Eye Care System.

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My previous professional experiences probably has something to do with the appeal of Frugal Innovation. As a lobbyist at the federal, state, and local levels of government, I observed several instances of waste. Historically, some government projects have begun with funding and then searched for solutions for the project/problem. Some people call this, “throwing money at the problem,” and I have observed how that strategy rarely ever works.

Additionally, Frugal Innovation solutions are often elegant in their simplicity. The concept includes design thinking as well as LEAN principles to create a solution for a specific market. Innovation happens in the simple delivery of the solution in a way that is both financially and environmentally cost effective.

I graduated from college during the depth of the recession. During both my academic career and in many of my jobs, there often were scarce resources to go around to deliver on the work. In fact, in all of them, the biggest resource I had to do the job was the expense for my time. While producing in a resource-constrained environment is not easy, it has challenged me to be creative in meeting the needs of the customer with the smallest resource investment possible.

I have found that the concepts at the root of Frugal Innovation likedesign thinking, analysis, LEAN, and general creativity, help me to refine my ideas and simplify the solution to be viable and frugal. I have found that I can apply these principles to solutions involving both people and systems. Taking the time to think through the problem and craft a frugal solution is usually “good enough”, if not the ideal solution.

I have also found, ironically, that after I have had some success as a lean department or through Frugal Innovation, other leaders are more likely to want to invest more in the product or service. Demonstrating that you can do things in a frugal way, even just to test and show proof of concept, is a powerful tool.

Innovation doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, innovation can be most transformative through its simplicity. Additionally, being low impact can also help to broaden innovation to new markets and spread solutions to people across socioeconomic lines. Leaders should keep the principles of Frugal Innovation in their tool-belt especially in entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial projects.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Using Frugal Innovation principles can help leaders develop simple solutions that have a small environmental footprint and make a big impact.