Emerging, new, and small businesses are usually resource constrained. To get ahead they may therefore resort to frugal but creative ways to get things done with combinations of (often repurposed) resources at hand or otherwise cheaply available rather than using expensive, “correct” solutions. In entrepreneurship research, this is known as entrepreneurial bricolage. In lay terms, bricolage is about doing business on a shoestring.
Past research has noted both positive and negative effects of bricolage. However, it has not quite explained why bricolage sometimes leads to good and other times to not so good results. Neither has the evidence been very clear about what type of businesses gain the most from using bricolage.
Now, Professor Per Davidsson from the Australian Centre for Entrepreneurship (ACE) at QUT—together with other colleagues with an ACE connection[i]–have taken important next steps in our understanding of entrepreneurial bricolage in the article “When is Less More? Boundary Conditions of Effective Entrepreneurial Bricolage”, published in the highly prestigious Journal of Management.
Conceptually, the authors describe the positive effects of bricolage as Resource Replacement – being able to achieve things that otherwise would require resources beyond one’s means. The negative effects they attribute to an Accumulation of Compromises, which arise due to use of Second-Best Solutions (SBS) and the Tinkering Trap (TT). Although a strong allure of the idea of bricolage is that it “sometimes yields unexpectedly brilliant solutions”, this is not the typical outcome. Accordingly, SBS indicates the problem that inexpensive, nonstandard solutions often have substandard functionality, whereas TT denotes the constant need for fixing that provisional solution often come with. The latter requires time and attention that makes the creative-frugal solutions not so cheap in the end as it first appeared.
For bricolage to be effective, the benefits of Resource Replacement need to outweigh the burden of the Accumulation of Compromises. For whom might this be the case? Prior research has mostly seen bricolage as a coping strategy for low-ambition businesses to get by. By contrast, the ACE-team’s new arguments and results instead suggest that bricolage is most effective for ventures that actively seek to develop. That is, it is more effective in the start-up stage than when the firm has fully established itself in the market. Among the latter category, it is most effective for firms with ambitions to grow.
Why? First, to break the status quo, ventures trying to get somewhere need more resources. This means that they are relatively more resource constrained. Because they face worse resource-constraints, they can derive greater Resource Replacement benefits from bricolage. Second, ventures with ambitions deal with customers and other stakeholders that are more demanding. The argument is that without reducing the “amount” of bricolage used, this makes these ventures avoid “sloppy” bricolage solutions, thereby reducing the burden of Second-Best Solutions. The results support these interpretations. With greater positives and reduced negatives, the net result from entrepreneurial bricolage becomes positive.
These new insights are important for the practical use of bricolage as well as for further research about it. Both have reason to learn more about what “good” bricolage entails and perhaps worry less about ventures doing “too much” bricolage. Getting more detail on the practices of “good bricolage” among firms with development ambitions is what research efforts ought to turn to next!
Steffens, P. R., Baker, T., Davidsson, P., & Senyard, J. M. (2022). When Is Less More? Boundary Conditions of Effective Entrepreneurial Bricolage. Journal of Management. doi.org/10.1177/01492063221077210,
In case of access problems, an “author version” is publicly available here
[i] The lead author, Professor Paul Steffens, was Associate Professor at ACE/QUT before taking up a professorship at University of Adelaide. Dr. Julienne Senyard is a PhD graduate from ACE/QUT. Professor Ted Baker introduced the notion of bricolage into entreprenhas been an invited expert discussant at the ACE annual paper development bootcamp.