no. 56 – Decoding Jugaad

is the story about my search for an ordinary stapler, and an extraordinary Indian woman who revealed to me how the invisible hand of culture drives our behavior in ways I never imagined.

There’s a cultural core value in India called Jugaad, or “frugal engineering”. It’s a creative, out-of-the-box way of thinking, or life-hack that’s almost always born out of necessity, and lack of either adequate, or the right resources. It’s a solution that tends to bend or even break the rules at times that says, “If I can make this work and make my life easier, and get away with it, then, why shouldn’t I do it this way?”


This approach comes from being in situations where the people-to-resources ratio is usually not in their favor. It’s also a general disregard for keeping rules (especially legal and weakly enforced ones) and from a widespread lack of faith in being able to get things done through legal or formal means. On the other hand, it also demonstrates resilience and an ability to make things work despite challenges and hardships. Hope that things will get done. It’s an informal and possibly, unorthodox way of operating via relationships and insider knowledge that says, “I am resourceful.”

I saw this implicit dimension of culture in action while shopping for a stapler at our local stationary store which reminded me of a rummage sale than an office supply because it was pretty crammed and disorganized. Not an inch of space was unused. The aisles were tall, dark, and narrow. Stacks of paper were stuffed next to envelopes, books, files, and folders. Binders jammed between pens and markers. And it seemed as if drafting pencils had no choice other than to stand at attention over rows of calendars, art supplies, games, and last-minute gifts.

Drowning in this ocean of office supplies, I surrendered and asked for help to get what I wanted to buy. Anticipating my bewilderment, she and said, oh-yes-we-have-that, but I was unconvinced she had it. I followed her anyway across the store where she climbed a fireman’s ladder. I watched her reach back, way, way back of the shelf and then she handed it to me, unceremoniously. It was incomprehensible how she found it. But there it was. I left the store a little stunned, as if disorganization made perfect sense to her, and that she had an ability to memorize and map the inventory, but not in a way that I could.

There may a great deal of chaos in Indian society, but they manage it better than you do. Her behavior reminds me of the 2013 Bollywood film, “The Lunchbox.” It’s about a man and a woman who become accidental friends when their messages get crossed in India’s equally astonishing dabbawalas lunchbox delivery system that delivers and returns hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people in Mumbai. The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. According to some reports, the dabbawalas make about one mistake in 8 million deliveries.

India may be messy, but it works.


Cultural Detective

The Lunchbox


  • Expat Whisperer

    Expat career coach by day, flâneuse by choice.

    Lisa is a transformational executive expat career coach and author with personal expatriate experience. With a sixth sense for cross-cultural insights, she reveals how the invisible hand of culture drives your behavior in ways you never imagined. She demonstrates new “ways of seeing” ourselves and others for executives and high-potential employees with careers in global transition. She enables organizational leaders of the future to deliver strong results, credibly, by mastering new types of expertise, and recognizing behavior that counts.