In Search of the Bricoleur

23 Apr

Guest post today by Stewart Hase

Bob le Bricoleur

In Search of the Bricoleur

Key Points

1. Another personality difference that creates conflict.
2. Bricoleurs see the word differently to non-bricoleurs
3. Bricoleurs are often side-lined.
4. Bricoleurs need to be invited into decision making situations not excluded.

I recently discovered that I am a bricoleur and it is a blessed relief to have outed at last. What this insight has done has explained how it is that I have managed to upset so many people in organisations, and perhaps other situations, over the years. It is a personality thing and, as I’ve mentioned before, it is personality differences where most conflicts begin, if not end.

Bricolage is a French word, as you’d probably guess, and originally referred to a worker who would make the best with what they had to complete a task. Thus they were people who tinkered with things, even playfully in an effort to solve a problem and used whatever resources they might have at hand. The term then became associated with art and craft. Later the usage has been broadened to include people who use their experience, their instinct, trial and error, and again, tinkering, to solve any sort of problem.

Thus, a manager or a researcher, for example, would bring whatever models are appropriate to a problem and would not be tied to a particular way of doing or thinking. They’d try something, perhaps even an amalgam of competing techniques or ideas, and see what worked rather than using a recipe driven approach. For the bricoleur, dogma and gurus who think they know the best way to approach a problem or issue are viewed with suspicion.

It is easy to see that to some people the bricoleur is nothing but a terrorist. They don’t work by the book, fiddle with process, flaunt policies and procedures, play with ideas, tinker and dislike high levels of control. This is the stuff of a nervous breakdown for the manager who is high on order, with crockery ducks flying along the wall in precise formation. The ISTJ will probably end up on high levels of psychotropic medication if a bricoleur is a member of their team. The archetypal Humphrey Applebee would be looking at Guantanamo Bay as a solution to the situation.

The truth is, of course, that we need both types in any organisation but it is easy to see where the conflict occurs. The bricoleur and the non-bricoleur are seeing the world through quite different lenses and will find it hard to understand each other’s language. Bricoleurs, in the original definition, were seen as being well-meaning amateurs by more traditional craft-persons or tradespersons who did things the ‘correct’ way. A bricoleur would see herself or himself as bringing expertise from many disciplines and experiences that enable them to see a task or problem in a different light. They’d see the other as narrow minded, limited in imagination and simply in the way.

My guess, and I don’t have any hard data to support this, is that bricoleurs would tend not to rise to the top of the corporate tree and f they did it would be an accident of sorts. Whether or not that is a good thing is open to debate and it may not matter because nature has probably spoken on the topic by making them unacceptable as leaders/managers and excluding them already.

I think organisations need bricoleurs, particularly in their decision-making and strategic processes. And it may be the case that they tend to be side-lined and ignored, infrequently being asked into the board room or places where the important decisions are made. We need people who are prepared to see things differently, ask difficult questions, be a bit different and tinker with ideas. They need to be heard and not just seen. My experience is that they tend to be seen as a bit too different, not a team player and just a bit too out there-a well meaning amateur perhaps.

Some years ago I was doing a consulting job with a great friend, Alan Davies. We were arranging a search conference to undertake a strategic planning exercise. The CEO was objecting to Alan wanting to invite union leaders and some other rebels who did not tend to toe the organisational party line. This list included customers who had not had a good experience with the organisation. Alan insisted they attend because you need to have your ‘enemies’ (not that they were really enemies but were perceived as such) in the room and not banging on the portcullis creating a stir. Best piece of management learning I every received and so too for the many CEOs who did eventually engage with the ‘enemy’, who is anyone unlike themselves.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at

7 Responses to “In Search of the Bricoleur”

  1. Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) April 23, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Thank you for the insight, Dr Hase. I always thought I was a contralabelist, but now I think I may be a bricoleur. I shall have more to say when I have recovered from the shock of self-recognition.


    • hudsongodfrey April 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

      I’m Spartacus!


  2. samjandwich April 23, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Wow that sounds so much like me!

    But I guess I’d dispute this characterisation slightly: I would suggest that a bricoleur probably does pay quite a bit of attention to the processes by which things get done within an organisation – it’s just that they are constantly looking to make things better as they go, so the assiduous following of a pre-determined process becomes anathema.

    You wouldn’t catch me going to a “Project Management 101” training course for example, because for me that sort of information pertains to the realm of “common sense”, and it almost seems a bit outlandish that anyone would need to learn that kind of thing because it’s so inherently obvious. But then again, ask me to explain my methodology and I’ll have a lot of trouble, and ask me to follow a process and do a quick slap-dash effort in the interests of getting something out the door, rather than taking the time to do something properly, and you’ll probably find me sitting in the toilet cubicle and communing with my razor blade during the tea break.

    To use the recipe analogy, I’d look at a recipe for a particular dish and think, how can I change this? but then I’ll often find myself eating baked beans because otherwise I’d probably starve in the time it takes to actually achieve what is envisaged.

    Conversely, we are seemingly given to sticking to the tried and true. Why is it that I spend my leisure hours trying to figure out how to make my VW Beetle as fuel-efficient as a Toyota Prius, when it would be far easier (and cheaper) just to buy a Prius and be done with it?!

    So , er, could we perhaps more accurately describe a bricoleur as someone who tries to draw on the sum total of their experience rather than what’s strictly relevant to the job at hand, and consistently holds the thought of “there must be a better way”? Is that what a bricoleur is, or is that what a manager is? or are the two so similar as to be synonymous? Is a bricoleur simple a manager without management aspirations?

    Add that to your data anyway, Stewart, because being data is a perfectly acceptable use of a bricoleur’s productive capacity!

    Oh whoops it’s Monday morning. Better go and do something useful…


    • helvityni April 23, 2012 at 11:07 am #

      So much common sense in your post, Sam…

      I remember having a perfectly filtered cup of coffee on the train in Holland, towards the end of the trip I was handed a little questionare about how to possible improve this perfection…WOW.


  3. Stewart April 23, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Thanks Sam. A bricoleur brings their experience but so do others even if they do it by the book. What is different about a bricoleur is that they are prepared to mix and match, to cross disciplines, are not confined by dogma or ‘the book’. They tinker and play. A bricoleur might be a manager (although it may be unlikely) but a manager is not necessarily a bricoleur. Bricoleurs drive most administrators and managers crazy because they don’t stick to the known, the conventional and ask funny questions. They appear amateurish to the more tightly controlled.

    I think what you described around not knowing how you do things is more about tacit knowledge-most expert practitioners use tacit knowledge and often have no idea about how they do things. They just, well, do! Fine if they are consciously competent but less fine if they are unconsciously competent or incompetent.


  4. AJ April 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    Interesting, Im often asked how I play so many musical instruments by almost instinct, (I have no music training at all) I have attempted to teach others but fail miserably in the attempt. I tinker at rapid pace inside a known song formation, yet I cannot tell you what or how or why I do. I just do…..and it seems to be working if my ever growing list of requested gigs is anything to go by .I dont know what that makes me though!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: