Bricolage Strategy

As a tactic, bricolage is a form of subversion or resistance that involves taking an activity or item designed for one purpose and instead of rejecting it, the activity is repeatedly and covertly altered until it assumes a purpose often completely different from the one that was originally intended.

The Oxford dictionary defines “bricolage” as:

– Construction or creation from a diverse range of available things.

– Something created in this way.

The fashion industry constant and openly uses the concept of bricolage to reflect the mood, politics, ideals, beliefs and issues of the time. For example, it is interesting to note that during the height of the feminist movement women’s cloths started becoming more masculine with padded shoulders and suit-styled jackets. Power symbols such as military dress uniforms repeatedly appear as parodies. Just take a look at the picture to see an example. This is a clear example of how an item, belief or task can be taken and altered to a purpose other than the one for which it was originally intended.

From time-to-time the tactician will be faced with a task that he or she cannot openly reject. An example of this is when a person is given an undesirable and potentially detrimental project (task) by their superior. The recipient cannot refuse for that would be insubordination and neither can they ignore the project as that would expose them to accusations of failure.

From the superior’s point of view the allocation of an unpleasant or even dangerous task may be deliberate or may simply be something that someone has to do. From the point of view of the recipient it is a threat.

The recipient has two options; carry out the task and accept the consequences or subvert the project to their own objectives. Time permitting; the recipient changes aspects of the task in many small and barely noticeable ways until, as if by magic, it is significantly and justifiably different from the original task.

An example of this took place in America during the early 1960’s. The company in question manufactured and sold specialist domestic vacuum cleaners door-to-door. The success of the individual sales representatives often depended on the territories that they were allocated. There was no malice in the way that the sales manager made the awards. The company rules were clear (if foolish) – the longest serving representatives got the best territories. A junior (but clever) salesman was allocated the worst area in the portfolio which meant excessively long working hours for little reward. Worse still, he was stuck with it for at least a year. He could have resigned his job or resigned himself to doing the job but instead adopted the tactic of bricolage.

He compiled a small questionnaire and used many of the pointless sales calls to interview people as to why they didn’t want to buy the product. He openly shared his findings with his manager who passed them on to the marketing department. Suddenly everyone was interested.

The young salesman was taken off the worthless territory and asked to repeat his survey in a prime one so that his findings could be compared. The results of the comparison were clear. While the company’s product had stayed the same price, the mass produced machines now being sold by the large stores were cheaper. These alternatives might be of a poorer quality but were affordable. For a company that had taken a firm market position based on quality, this was a revelation. Accountants and engineers were summoned and pretty soon a new and cheaper version of the product was available. Who better to head up the new team but the young representative that had stimulated the change? The original manager benefited too – after all he’d brought the research to everyone’s attention. The company benefited from increased sales.

The reason we chose this story set nearly 50 years ago is that it doesn’t end there. Some years later, The President of the company then used the same tactic to save the company from collapse.

Almost two decades went by and regardless of their efforts the President and management of the company saw that they were losing the battle against department / high street stores. There was only so much that they could do to reduce their prices. Unfortunately, the owners of the company were blinded by the vastness of the domestic market and remained convinced that the company could compete. The President was a much more realistic person and started a programme of small changes to one of the models. He made it bigger, more robust and more powerful. This increased the price tag but he also started marketing them directly to industrial cleaning companies. Under the very eyes of the owners he changed the entire focus of the company from mass door-to-door domestic sales to carefully targeted and cost effective business-to-business sales.

The owners were pleased and while they had been unable to accept the dramatic changes originally proposed, they largely ignored the series of small, disguised but purposeful ones that were implemented. It’s worth noting that the original sales representative (1960’s) and the President of the company (1980’s) were the same person.

It would be nice to be able to say that the company is today one of the largest in the world or something else equally dramatic but is still just a medium-sized manufacturing company. However, before relegating it to the shadows of the giant multi-nationals it is worth noting that it is still privately owned and has been highly profitable for most of the six decades it’s been operating. Now that’s a real success storey.

“As a tactic, bricolage can also involve the selective and subverting “piecing-together” of various components to form a new and unintended whole.”

South American Indians that were exposed to Christian missionaries would often take aspects of the new religion and change it to suit their own beliefs. Over time as more and more diverse beliefs, symbols and icons were incorporated a new and unexpected religion emerged. In a sense this allowed people to resist the indoctrination and ultimately subvert it to their own deep-rooted beliefs.

An excellent example of this is the fusion of Christianity and Spirit worship that can still be seen in many parts of Africa. The origin of this classic example of bricolage can be understood by reading Things Fall Apart” a 1959 English-language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

The ability to use bricolage seems to be built into human nature. There is no doubt that people all over the world use in both their private and professional lives almost every day. Still, the true power of this tactic is when it is used consciously to achieve a specific objective.

On a final note, bricolage is also one of the most effective defenses against the “Poisoned Chalice” tactic.