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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

On September 24, ten months after its flawless launch on November 5, 2013, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully entered orbit around Mars, three days after NASA’s MAVEN. India became the first Asian nation to join the global space elite of the United States, Europe and Russia, and accomplished its Mars mission on the first attempt. Most astonishing of all was the fact that India’s MOM had cost $74 million to NASA’s $671 million for the MAVEN project.


What made this possible? What fundamental strength of the Indian way of getting things done and approach to innovation accounts for this technological feat on a shoestring?

A few months earlier, I had been invited to brief the NISAR project team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena working on a joint mission between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to design and launch a satellite with advanced radar imaging to observe the natural processes of the changing earth. The purpose of the briefing was to create awareness of cultural differences in thinking, communication, ways of working and management style that can affect India-U.S. collaborations.

At JPL, I met Alok Chatterjee, Mission Interface Manager and main architect of this joint project with India. A veteran of both ISRO and NASA/JPL, he had also helped set up JPL support for ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. We discussed at length the differences in how projects are planned and carried out in India and the United States, and how to make such project collaborations successful.

The parallel development and launching of the India and U.S. Mars orbiters provided us with a high-profile case in point for a fundamental aspect of the Indian mindset that needs to be understood, appreciated and negotiated on a daily basis by all who work with Indian partners and counterparts. This approach and way of thinking is superbly captured by the colloquial Hindi term jugaad —India’s art of ingenious improvisation.

There are myriad examples of jugaad in action in India at the level of everyday work style as well as fundamental attitude and belief. What each reveals is that, in the Indian environment, flexibility and “playing it by ear” is not only habitual, and often a matter of necessity, but is considered a strength rather than a weakness. Historically, under feudalism, colonialism and—later on—the “bureaucracy raj” of the first 40 years of independent India, the ability to work around the system, to improvise (and to circumvent the rules!) was often required for any kind of success.

Of course, jugaad is a two-edged sword. Social commentators and management theorists in India line up on opposite sides of an ongoing and heated national debate about the pros and cons of the jugaad approach. For some, it’s “an Indian commodity ripe for export,” while for others it’s an attitude that can mean choosing expediency over long-term effectiveness.
It’s not surprising, then, to see Indian commentary on the Mars Orbiter Mission phrased in terms of the ongoing national debate about jugaad. “No Room for Jugaad on Mars” is the title of a Times of India Op-Ed piece. But for JPL’s Alok Chatterjee, “Jugaad is the Indian approach of getting the maximum out of spending the least amount of resources, including time. And while jugaad cannot defy the laws of physics in getting a complex space mission like MOM accomplished, it is definitely a time-tested approach that has proved applicable to processes for achieving the mission’s accelerated goals.”

India’s “space venture on a shoestring” was thus made possible not only by less expensive engineering talent willing to work around the clock, but also by using ingenious improvisation to cope successfully with resource constraints and exceptionally tight timelines. ISRO built the final model of the orbiter from the start instead of building a series of iterative models, as NASA does. They limited the number of ground tests. They used components and building blocks from earlier and concurrent missions. They also circumvented the lack of a rocket powerful enough to launch the satellite directly out of the earth’s gravitational pull by having the satellite orbit the earth for a month to build up enough speed to break free from the earth’s gravitational pull.

In the afterglow of India’s space age triumph on a frugal budget, the strengths of the jugaad philosophy seem vindicated. But had the Mars Orbiter Mission story ended differently, in failure, as have 30 out of the 51 attempts the world has made to reach Mars, the talk in India today would be far different from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hailing of the mission as “a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation.” There would be questioning of whether the national genius for low-cost improvised innovation and ingenious workaround solutions —jugaad—is indeed the key to a successful future.

Karine Schomer, Ph.D., is President of Change Management Consulting and Training (CMCT) and leads The CMCT India Practice. She is a South Asia expert and advisor to project teams that work with India. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.