Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 282
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Something from Nothing

Researcher discovers the dark side of “making do.”

Meet Tim Grayson. He’s a farmer, and he also raises tilapia, a tropical fish, but if you had told him 20 years ago that fish farming lay in his future, he would have been very surprised. That’s because he lived in coal mining country and had no intention of moving. But the coal mining economy went soft, mines closed, and many people lost their jobs. Grayson hunkered down and worked hard, but then he did something that set him apart from his neighbors.

Crisscrossing Grayson’s farm were abandoned coal mines. Occasionally, one would collapse and leave a giant sink hole right in the middle of a field. The mines also collected methane, an odorless, colorless, explosive gas.

Grayson obtained an old diesel generator from a local factory, and he formed a partnership with a friend who knew how to drill holes in the ground. One day, they drilled into an abandoned mine shaft and found a steady supply of methane. Through much tinkering and a few explosions that knocked him on his rear, Grayson got his generator to run on methane, and suddenly, he had electricity to sell. He sold most of it to the local utility, but he also supplied his own needs.

With free electricity, he built greenhouses and grew hydroponic tomatoes. His electricity powered the lights, and waste heat from the generator heated the water that surrounded the roots of the tomato plants. Finally, needing fertilizer for his tomato plants, he introduced a tropical fish, tilapia, to the warm running water surrounding his tomato plants. He grew the grain that fed the fish, and their excrement fertilized the tomatoes.

Today, Grayson Hill Farms employs 30 people, and he even sells excess methane to the local natural gas company. He achieved this growth while the local economy faltered.

Grayson Hill Farms was one of the businesses selected for study by Ted Baker, from North Carolina State University. Baker went into an economically distressed region and identified 29 locally owned firms that had survived the tough times. He studied all 29 with a goal of finding the key to their survival, the key action that some business owners did that others failed to do. He believes he found it, and he even gave it a name: bricolage, which means making something from nothing, or more precisely, “making do by combining resources on hand to address new problems or opportunities.” (p. 333) Baker documented four features of “making do” in his study:

    1. Businesses actively engage current problems and opportunities with whatever is at hand.
    2. They disregard commonly accepted limitations; they test limits.
    3. They combine and reuse resources and apply these combinations in ways not foreseen or intended for these resources.
    4. They maintain a treasure trove – a stash of junk, or ideas, or skills that can be combined in new ways.

For example, Tim Grayson engaged the problem of methane by combining an unused diesel generator, his own knowledge of diesel mechanics, and a friend who knew how to drill holes. He tested the limitation of appropriate fuel for his generator and used it in a way not foreseen. Finally, he used surplus switching equipment to connect his generator to the power grid. With free electricity and waste heat, he repeated the process, first with tomatoes, then with tropical fish.

“Making do” hardly seems like a stunning finding. Farmers and small business owners are famous for it, but Baker found what was different in his sample of companies.

“Making do” requires owners to spend significant amounts of time coaxing more useful life out of worn, failing, and obsolete tools and resources. The nine firms in Baker’s sample that did the most “making do” failed to grow at all. These owners concentrated on survival at any cost, and the price they paid turned out to be failing to grow as a business. They failed to identify the important factors for their businesses to grow, and they failed to give adequate attention to these growth factors.

Conversely, the most successful firms used “making do” selectively to solve problems or to explore new opportunities (like Tim Grayson with his methane gas). These firms concentrated their precious resources on factors necessary for their growth, using “making do” selectively, and it worked. They were the most successful. They grew.

There’s a warning here for do-it-yourselfers for whom “making do” is a rule they follow in their lives. While you’re busy fixing a piece of equipment to save a 60-dollar service call, you’re ignoring customers, or missing a deadline, or failing to notice new requirements that customers are trying to call to your attention. Don’t do that. Remember Ted Baker’s research and tend to business – important business. “Making do” helps you survive, but it doesn’t help you prosper unless you use it selectively.

Reference: Baker, Ted and Reed E. Nelson (2005) Creating Something from Nothing: Resource Construction through Entrepreneurial Bricolage. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50 (2005), 329-366.

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