Out of the Classroom

Learning How to Innovate in the Developing World

07.05.12 3:48 PM ET

In college I studied abroad in South Africa where I taught computer classes to township residents, many of whom had never before used a computer. We started the first day by showing the students how to turn on their computers, and within two weeks had them doing things with Excel spreadsheets that my own mother (and most Americans) can't do. The South Africans' hunger to learn doubly motivated me to make the most of my own much greater resources in the States. If they could do so much with so little, surely I could do far more with my many blessings.

My own experience is now being emulated by top companies. The Harvard Business Review reports that Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, advises U.S. companies to send executives to developing nations to learn what the South Africans taught me: how to get the most creative use out of limited resources.

4) Send your top executives to emerging markets to cultivate the jugaad mindset:
Ultimately frugal innovation is not just about doing more with less. It's about learning how to innovate under severe constraints and turn extreme adversity into an opportunity for growth. But it's hard for Western executives to cultivate this frugal, flexible and inclusive mindset — which we call jugaad — in resource-rich and relatively stable Western economies. That's why Ghosn dispatched Gérard Detourbet, a senior executive in Paris who was in charge of Renault-Nissan's entry-level cars, to India. From his new base in Chennai, Detourbet will be leading the development of a "global small car" — an entry-level car priced at around Rs 3 lakhs ($5,200) that will first be commercialized in India and then introduced in other emerging markets like Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. When Detourbet returns to Renault-Nissan's headquarters in Paris, he is poised to bring with him the jugaad mindset he honed in India. As Ghosn, a Brazilian-born French national of Lebanese descent, explains: "We don't go to emerging markets to just bring back a product, but to learn something — like new processes or a whole new mindset."