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1 The entrepreneurship literature shows an abundance of studies on the creation and development of SMEs, but few studies have examined the process of incubator startup, although these organizations also need to create and maintain a viable business model. Hackett and Dilts (2004a), citing Rice and Matthews (1995), point out that incubators should be considered “entrepreneurial” businesses. Indeed, they have objectives and resources, offer services, are accountable to sponsors, and must think about strategies and cope with competitors (Phan, Siegel & Wright, 2005; Baraldi & Havedid, 2016). According to Aaboen (2009), the analogy to a business is useful because it suggests questions that might never be raised otherwise. It also expands the possibility for theory, a point on which the incubation literature was initially criticized, with some authors suggesting that established theories should be applied to this new field (Hackett & Dilts, 2004a, 2004b; Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005).

2 Thus far, the studies on incubators have focused on evaluation issues (Mian, 1997; Barbero, Casillas, Ramos & Guitar, 2012; Bakkali, Messeghem & Sammut, 2014), strategic positioning (Schwartz & Hornich, 2008, 2010; Vanderstraeten & Matthyssens, 2012), and incubatee selection and support services (Aerts, Matthyssens & Vandenbempt, 2007; McAdam & Marlow, 2007; Bruneel, Ratinho, Clarysse & Groen, 2012). Taken together, the studies indicate that incubators need to ensure a certain amount of coherence in their strategies, selection policies, services, and evaluation modes (von Zedtwitz & Grimaldi, 2006; Bergek & Norrman, 2008; Barbero et al., 2012; Vanderstraeten & Matthyssens, 2012). To date, this has generally been dealt with in a normative and causal way (Rice & Matthews, 1995; Lalkaka, 2006; Mrkajic, 2017), which has meant that the issues related to starting an incubator with few resources in an uncertain environment have been somewhat neglected (von Zedtwitz & Grimaldi, 2006).

3 In the case of incubation, strategy is often set by sponsors and carried out by the management team (von Zedtwitz & Grimaldi, 2006; Vanderstraeten & Matthyssens, 2012). The creation of an incubator is usually a political decision (Mian, 1997) that involves the agreement and commitment of several stakeholders (private organizations, public institutions, etc.). Resources are allocated for a given period and their proper use is evaluated on a regular basis (Alsos, Hytti & Ljunggren, 2011). Nevertheless, although objectives are generally set to satisfy the sponsors, there is no guarantee that these sponsors are interested in having a strong presence in incubator management (Alsos et al., 2011) or the skills needed to understand how an incubator works (Rice & Matthews, 1995). The risk is therefore that the objectives are not defined in a precise and operational way. Thus, in addition to low sponsor involvement, Clarysse, Wright, Lockett, Van de Velde and Vohora (2004) point out that other factors may also reduce the incubator’s ability to achieve its objectives or develop in the long term: (1) insufficient investment in resources from sponsors, (2) a managerial team with insufficient experience and network presence to operate the incubator, and (3) no regional infrastructure or network of actors to support business creation and innovation. These resource-poor or competence-poor incubators thus generate fewer jobs and raise less capital.

4 Incubator management can thus resemble a balancing act between a set of objectives and the available resources. Some authors have shown that when sponsor commitment is low, the incubator services on offer are influenced in part by the skills of the managerial team (von Zedtwitz, 2003; von Zedtwitz & Grimaldi, 2006; Vanderstraeten & Matthyssens, 2012). When incubators are faced with this set of constraints, they must right from the start do their best to meet stakeholder expectations using the available means, which often means tinkering responses that they hope will be satisfactory. According to Sammut (1998, 2001), the startup phase, a vital part of creation, can last a few years but may last more than ten years. As in the case of other types of startup, the resources of young incubators may be limited (Clarysse et al., 2004) and the sponsor expectations may be unstable (Alsos et al., 2011). Incubator managers therefore have to make do with the resources available to them in order to respond to the various internal and external constraints.

5 Thus, how can we characterize the incubator startup phase in a situation of limited resources? How does bricolage work in the incubator’s organization and strategy? This article aims to answer these questions by examining the startup phase (creation and development) of an incubator using the theoretical framework of bricolage.

6 For several years now, bricolage has been attracting increasing attention in the fields of management and entrepreneurship (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Phillips & Tracey, 2007; Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010; Fisher, 2012; Ansart, Duymedjian & Poissonnier, 2012; Salunke, Weerawardena & McColl-Kennedy, 2013; Desa & Basu, 2013; Jaouen & Nakara, 2014: Jacquemin, Lesage & Ronteau, 2014; Senyard, Baker, Steffens & Davidsson, 2014). Bricolage, as a concept, means making do with what is at hand on a shoestring budget (Lévi-Strauss, 1962, p. 27). Thus, Lévi-Strauss (1962) defined the do-it-yourselfer ‒ or bricoleur ‒ as a collector of all kinds of tools and materials, odds and ends collected from all the opportunities that present themselves and that enable the person to renew or enrich his stock with the remains of previous constructions and destructions ‒ always following the principle “this might come in handy someday” (Lévi-Strauss, 1962, p. 27). Bricolage is thus keeping track of the available resources in case they can be used to resolve a similar problem (Baker & Nelson, 2005). This concept has particularly caught the attention of entrepreneurship researchers because it seems to meet the needs of young companies, which seem to follow emerging and iterative processes rather than purely deliberate and/or Schumpeterian strategies (Julien, 1990; Rangone, 1999; Sammut, 2001; Hernandez 2008).

7 To study the startup phase of incubators, we performed an in-depth analysis of an incubator in the south of France, a particularly dynamic region known for its support for entrepreneurship and innovative companies. Created in 2003, this incubator had initially struggled to survive due to a gap between the objectives of the decision-makers and the resources that were made available and the strong regional competition from older and better equipped incubators. It is in this dynamic and competitive context that we observed the management team’s development of a bricolage process to ensure the incubator’s survival and growth.

8 We chose an exploratory qualitative research method. Twenty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted, including four with support staff and 19 with incubatees. The interviews were processed via manual speech analysis after thematic coding of the items. The results showed that the bricolage approach was used in the selection and support practices, as well as in the incubator’s strategy. These results prompted us to consider the construction of the incubator’s strategy not only as an alignment with the sponsors’ objectives, but also as an incremental construction in response to problems encountered in the field by the managerial team.

9 The article is organized as follows. In the first section, we present the theoretical framework, especially focusing on the normative and causal aspects of incubator creation, which prioritize the definition of objectives. Influenced by the incubator’s environment, this definition then has an impact on the choice of resources to reach the objectives. We next introduce the bricolage literature with the idea that adaptations are always possible when an incubator lacks resources. In the second section, we present the research method, and then in section 3 we present our results and in the final section we discuss them.

1. Theoretical framework: incubation and bricolage

10 In this section, we see that the literature traditionally describes incubator creation causally (1.1). Nevertheless, recent research is moving away from this viewpoint (1.2), which leads us to the theoretical trend of bricolage to explain how incubators cope with a lack of resources and implement emerging strategies to survive (1.3).

1.1. Incubator creation: a causal approach

11 Business creation is conventionally described as the result of a simple and rational causal process: the entrepreneur sees an opportunity and mobilizes the available resources to take advantage of it (Shane & Venkataraman, 2000). After observing the market (external environment), the entrepreneur collects information and resources (especially during the preparation of the business plan) to convince stakeholders of the merits of the idea.

12 By considering the creation of an incubator to be the creation of a business, the incubation literature follows the same approach. Initially, the incubator’s objective is presented as a response to imperfections in the market in which it is established (Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005). From this perspective, the literature describes incubators as “tools” for solving an observed problem (Mian, 1997; Bergek & Norrman, 2008). The objective thus appears to be dependent on the context in which the incubator will operate (Autio & Klofsten, 1998), with stakeholder issues reflecting the local context (Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005). For example, regions with little economic growth will need to set up incubators to help them solve this problem. In 1986, Brooks pointed out that setting up an incubator starts with the observation of a market-driven need. This need may originate from either local clients (potential incubatees) or the community itself (sponsors). However, as the incubator is primarily a political instrument (Brooks, 1986; Mian, 1997; Lalkaka & Abetti, 1999), the expectation is that the sponsors will primarily influence its missions (Mian, 1997; von Zedtwitz & Grimaldi, 2006). The sponsors’ objectives may therefore be out of step with the incubator’s immediate environment (Brooks, 1986). Once the demand and objectives have been established, choices related to incubator size or types of support can be made. Thus, setting up an incubator is usually described causally, with observations of the environment influencing the objectives, which in turn influence the allocated resources.

13 Carayannis and von Zedtwitz (2005) showed that these objectives can be differentiated along two dimensions (Porter, 1986): (1) their competitive scope ‒ that is, a particular population, the geographical scope (local or national), or a particular industrial position, and (2) the choice of strategic objectives (profit/not-for-profit), generally related to the funding source (private/public). The success of these choices will depend on the achievement of the relevant performance indicators (Autio & Klofsten, 1998; Barbero et al., 2012). For-profit incubators will seek to be profitable first, while public incubators (not-for-profit) will prioritize the economic development of the region in which they are located (Rice & Matthews, 1995). For example, a university incubator may focus on enhancing the work of its researchers (Carayannis & von Zedtwitz, 2005). Not-for-profit incubators are generally heavily subsidized by public agencies or linked to an economic development program, while private for-profit incubators have profitability targets with a percentage of capital as fees or payment of rent (Hansen, Chesbrough, Nohria & Sull, 2000; Lewis, 2001; Mrkajic, 2017).

14 From this perspective, different categories of incubators have been established linking the objectives (or missions) to the operational needs (Allen & McCluskey, 1990; Grimaldi & Grandi, 2005; Mrkajic, 2017). For example, several authors contrast economic growth incubators with real estate incubators (Brooks, 1986; Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005). Each category responds to different environmental needs and therefore proposes a particular combination of services (between logistic support and tenancy): (1) real estate incubators do not need to provide much support and can be only modestly innovative, with success being the incubatees’ ability to pay rent (Rice & Matthews, 1995), whereas (2) economic growth incubators need to build businesses that can survive outside the incubator and strengthen the region’s economy. More innovative companies may be selected, requiring greater support (Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005), and therefore more resources and services.

15 These studies encourage the setting up of a causal process (Rice & Matthews, 1995; Lalkaka & Abetti, 1999; Lalkaka, 2006; Mrkajic, 2017) in which several questions need to be asked before an incubator is created. These revolve around: (1) the number of startup projects that might be interested in tenancy or support, (2) the identification of startup support structures that can compete or collaborate, and (3) an analysis to determine which services are missing and can be offered. A feasibility study is therefore essential and requires that stakeholders gather around the project. It is also essential to ask questions about the outcome of incubated companies. For Lalkaka and Abetti (1999) and Lalkaka (2006), this preparatory phase of analysis generally lasts 6 to 9 months; with the next phase being the acquisition of the necessary resources to begin operations and ensure survival for 3 years. Setting up an incubator is thus thought of as the creation of a business based on a business plan (Rice & Matthews, 1995; Lalkaka, 2006).

16 During startup, several steps are necessary to ensure survival (Lalkaka, 2006). The incubator must attract a sufficient number of new ventures to fill the structure (Rice & Matthews, 1995). To do so, the incubator’s reputation among potential incubatees must be solid and in line with its strategy (Lumpkin & Ireland, 1988). This means that the incubator must build and maintain relationships with the professional community (joining networks for funding and startup support). The objective is to attract enough projects that the incubator is able to select those that are most interesting.

1.2. Limitations of the causal approach: the incubator’s necessary strategic adaptation

17 Beyond the causal approach, the objectives, missions and strategies may vary. According to Allen and McCluskey (1990), no two incubators are alike. Different resources, needs, constraints and opportunities affect the mission of each incubator, as do different rules, services and performances. Clarysse, Wright, Lockett, van de Velde and Vohora (2004) and Gabarret, Jaouen, Nakara and Vedel (2014) show that incubators can be deficient in resources and competences or have too much ambition with objectives unsuited to their resources.

18 von Zedtwitz and Grimaldi (2006) point out that the services provided by incubators are very much related to the team in place and may not be completely aligned with the sponsors’ stated objectives. Abetti (2004) shows that in the context of a proactive policy set into place, difficulties may arise in the incubator. There may thus be differences of opinion between the management team and the sponsors regarding the missions to be carried out in view of available resources or field constraints.

19 In the case where the incubator has to respond to several sponsors, Alsos, Hytti and Ljunggren (2011) proposed three criteria to judge the strengths that incubator stakeholders have: (1) power (ability to impose their will by various means), (2) legitimacy, (3) and the ability to bring immediate pressure to bear. The management team’s perception of the stakeholders will depend on these three criteria and may generate strategic adaptations (e.g., less stringent project selection). For example, Lumpkin and Ireland (1988) observe that a low incubator fill rate generates less stringent selection processes. This adaptation will be all the more marked if the environment is politicized or the incubator has to respond to several expectations at the same time. Alsos et al. (2011) thus point out that the incubator will adapts its strategy to the most important demands in order to survive. The expectations may be more or less urgent and their satisfaction more or less a priority for incubator survival. For example, an incubator can be regularly evaluated by the principal sponsor to ensure that the investment is profitable (Mian, 1997). If this is not the case, the sponsor may decide to close the incubator or replace the management team. In France, academic incubators, first created in 1999 and funded by the state (Clarysse & Bruneel, 2007), are regularly evaluated (e.g., Ernst & Young, 2003, Bussillet, Larrue, Dani & Girault, 2006), and this has sometimes led to closure or restructuring.

20 The potential gap between resources (whether financial or support skills) and the sponsors’ initial objectives can therefore, in the extreme, lead to incubator closure. It can also lead to a failure of the initial strategy, forcing the management team to manage paradoxes (Gabarret et al., 2014) and reformulate, readapt and redesign the strategy according to “what’s available.” A new strategy may thus emerge to ensure incubator survival (i.e., the continuity of the organization, the conservation of resources, and the satisfaction of sponsors; Smida & Khelil, 2010). These practices of adaptation and reformulation are generally referred to as “bricolage” in the academic literature (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010; Desa & Basu, 2013).

1.3. Bricolage: between emerging and deliberate strategy

21 Bricolage is defined as (1) making do and (2) combining available resources (3) for new uses (Baker & Nelson, 2005). Several authors have emphasized the relevance of bricolage as a theoretical framework for entrepreneurship (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010; Desa, 2012; Fisher, 2012; Salunke, Weerawardena & McColl-Kennedy, 2013; Desa & Basu, 2013; Jaouen & Nakara, 2014). An adaptive and emerging strategy, bricolage means using the available resources in new ways to adapt to a complex or evolving environment.

22 Several terminologies have gradually emerged to refine the understanding of this concept and identify the modalities. Initially, bricolage was used to characterize organizational practices (Baker, 2007) or tactics (Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010). Thus, “organizational” bricolage mobilizes and combines resources based on the fundamental principles of reuse and circumvention. Some have also referred to a bricolage “of necessity” (Desa & Basu, 2013; Jaouen & Nakara, 2014), where it is reactive and involves improvisation in decision-making and a good ability to adapt in unstable situations.

23 For several years, however, bricolage has been recognized as a real strategy for creating and/or acquiring resources and dynamic capacities (Phillips & Tracey, 2007; Di Domenico, Haugh & Tracey, 2010; Duymedjian, 2010; Senyard et al., 2014). Senyard et al. (2014) thus show that “strategic” bricolage is a path to innovation when resources are constrained. In this case, the strategy is emergent and incremental (Bakir & Todorovik, 2010).

24 The entrepreneurial process can also be understood as an emerging process, as initially described by Mintzberg and Walters (1982, 1985). Emerging processes differ from deliberate strategies as the latter rely on process planning from a leader’s rational, analytical and intentionally formulated strategic vision. In contrast, the assumption underlying an emerging strategy is that the entrepreneur, central to the entrepreneurial process and decider of strategy, adapts the strategy to respond to opportunities, potential constraints and unexpected problems when it is deployed in the field. For Mintzberg and Walters (1985), emerging strategies arise when the intended strategy differs from the realized strategy. The intended strategy is the strategy that the decision-maker hopes to carry out. It is usually described in detail in a strategic plan or the business plan in the case of an entrepreneurial process. The realized strategy is the one that is actually followed by the organization. Ultimately, the realized strategy is rarely the intended strategy, but is instead the result of the intended strategy (i.e., the one the decision-maker intended) that evolves over time with the introduction of new emerging strategies that are needed to respond to unexpected opportunities and challenges (Mintzberg & Walters, 1985).

25 According to Rose and Cray (2013), we should not think of intended and realized strategies as two static states. The intended strategy (initial state) and the realized strategy (final state) are linked by processes that can be identified and managed. In cases where the final form of a strategy conforms to the intended strategy, this should not be seen as the exceptional forecasting abilities of the decision-makers, but rather as the inclusion of necessary flexibility in their initial strategy (Rose & Cray, 2013). In other words, strategy should be considered a verb rather than a noun, and strategic plans as dynamic documents that allow for their own evolution (Rose & Cray, 2013).

26 Therefore, the difference between the intended strategy and the realized strategy may appear deliberate, as when the decision-maker’s vision changes, or as the next step following uncontrolled external events (i.e., lack of resources, stakeholder initiatives). An emerging strategy is then put into place. It is not initially intended but is the result of a juxtaposition of decisions made along the way (Mintzberg & Walters, 1985). An emerging strategy signals a model of action that develops over time. The decision-maker can thus implement adaptive mechanisms to control the occurrence of offsets (Quinn, 1978; Mintzberg & Walters, 1985). In particular, he/she may decide to be without a mission or specific objectives in order to remain flexible to the demands of stakeholders or focused on current daily operations. Decision-making can evolve incrementally or by trial and error (Lindblom, 1959; Quinn, 1978). This process of reactive adaptation to the environment is not the only emerging strategy available to the entrepreneur (Wiltbank, Dew, Read & Sarasvathy, 2006), as bricolage is another process (Baker & Nelson, 2005).

27 Bricolage has two successive stages: the first is the accumulation of resources without a clear objective, and the second is the use of these resources to solve an unexpected problem. Bricolage is often used to reach “acceptable” objectives with very limited resources because the organization’s survival depends on it. This behavior is reactive. It can also be used to deliberately create new dynamic capabilities to develop new ideas and create value. In this case, bricoleurs draw on the available resources that are then creatively recombined (Phillips & Tracey, 2007; Di Domenico, Haugh & Tracey, 2010). They do not intentionally seek to go beyond the scope of their stock or their context for action (Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010). They make do while assembling resources and look for resolutions to problems, even when it means diverting a resource from its original use. Yet this stimulates creativity and innovation (Miner, Bassoff & Moorman, 2001; Garud & Karnoe, 2003; Andersen, 2008) and makes it easier to gain competitive advantage (Salunke, Weerawardena & McColl-Kennedy, 2013), as the opportunities are created from resources that are “cheap”. Bricolage can thus be integrated into a strategic approach, adopted by a company with a resource disadvantage compared with its competitors (Sirmon, Hitt & Ireland, 2007; Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010).

28 According to Bakir and Todoravic (2010), the conditions for bricolage arise when the link between the available means and the objectives becomes ambiguous and unclear (characteristic of an uncertain environment). Strategy building then becomes incremental and realized strategy no longer resembles the intended strategy. From this point onward, bricolage opens the way to building new objectives. As Clarysse, Wright, Lockett, van de Velde and Vohora (2004) show, a lack of clarity in the objectives combined with a lack of resources and skills can lead a less successful incubator (or one in the startup phase) to imitate the most successful incubators in its region. Yet these strategies of imitation are rarely successful because the conditions for incubator success are based on both tangible and intangible elements (structure/culture) that are difficult to imitate in the short term (Clarysse et al., 2004; Abetti et al., 2004). Other survival strategies must therefore be implemented.

29 One of the most important challenges of the startup phase is to ensure the organization’s survival. What is the startup phase like for incubators with limited resources? How does bricolage manifest in their organization and strategy? This article aims to answer these questions. Our problematic is therefore the following: within the theoretical framework of bricolage, we examine incubator startup to determine how bricolage becomes operationalized in the practices of selection, support and strategic positioning.

2. Methodology

30 To address this issue, we chose a qualitative research method based on an in-depth case study. The choice of a single case study is justified by its exploratory nature, as this type of study is suitable to examine a phenomenon that has been little studied and to produce systems of possible interpretation. This method is particularly appropriate for understanding the how and why of an event, behavior or phenomenon (Yin, 2003). Yin (2003) emphasizes that any phenomenon observed through a single case is potentially of general scope, and we thus assume that the problems encountered by the incubator studied in this research may be observed in incubators of similar size and characteristics (i.e., small public incubators, generalist at creation). The case method thus allows for detailed analyses of processes (De La Ville, 2001) and the reuse of data (Chabaud & Germain, 2006).

31 Our research protocol is based on the qualitative data reuse (QDR) approach. An “uncommon practice in management science” (Chabaud & Germain, 2006, p.200), it consists of a “re-examination of one or more sets of qualitative data in order to pursue research questions” (Thorne, 2004, p. 100). As Chabaud and Germain (2006) point out, QDR “is an interesting way to plumb the reservoir of potentialities offered by qualitative data, pave the way for renewed questions on qualitative studies, and put empirical material at the heart of the debates in the management sciences” (p. 218). What matters in this type of research is the data processing and analysis more than the data collection (Silverman, 2000). Yet, it can be risky to favor only one source of data, however rich it may be. The researcher must therefore make sure to have many sources in order to cross and triangulate the elements from each source. For this research, we re-analyzed the data from our initial study by integrating new codings corresponding to the new themes studied, in this case: bricolage.

32 In this section, we present the following: the case, the operationalization criteria for bricolage, and the methods for data collection and analysis.

2.1. Case presentation

33 The case is a small incubator created in a geographical area that has not been able to attract new companies. The city in question has 25,000 inhabitants and two other cities, A and B, with respectively 290,000 and 150,000 inhabitants, are within a 30-km radius. Both A and B have had their own incubators since the late 1980s and have a very strong appeal for projects in the region.

34 To avoid the flight of entrepreneurial projects and favor the installation of companies in the territory, the community of local municipalities bought the premises of an old company in 2003 and created a small incubator whose vocation is to create local jobs, support local business creation, and keep the businesses in the territory after the creation phase. No industrial sector was favored, but the objective was clear: to boost the local economy by supporting startups (preferably innovative) and encourage companies to remain.

35 Yet from the start the incubator has had few resources: a single support staff member (the manager himself), 20 offices to fill, and few financial resources. The infrastructure was limited to the offices, the incubator had no workshops for prototype manufacturing, and the support skills were restricted to those of the manager. Two years after starting, the manager was able to hire two other support staff.

36 He was replaced in 2008 by a new manager. Following his departure, his two employees resigned. After an integration phase, the new director hired three employees (in 2011 and 2012), creating a totally new team. Upon arrival, the new manager tried to make his mark by implementing more formalized tools: an official selection process (although not always followed), introduction of a pre-incubation phase, and the draft of a contract including the incubatee exit date (although not always respected). Following this logic, the decision was made to build 11 workshops to facilitate the manufacture of products, expand the premises, and diversify the service offer. The incubator startup covered two main phases:


  • The first phase was from 2004 to 2009. The structure was initially very informal, with very personalized relationships between the support staff and the incubatees, although the incubator practices were gradually formalized. A policy of filling the incubator also emerged in this phase. Selection was not strict but rather intuitive and based solely on the project holder’s profile. The incubator was not well known, very few applications were made, and its future was uncertain.
  • The second phase ran from 2009 to 2013, with a new support team and a draft for its strategic orientation. The incubator became increasingly structured with the implementation of stricter selection practices and the creation of six specialized poles: (1) cosmetics and health, (2) arts and design, (3) electronics and sensors, (4) websites and services, (5) agribusiness, and (6) sports, outdoor activities and tourism. This new reorganization sought to define clear objectives for the supported sectors (specialized poles). It was nevertheless based retrospectively on the existing business sectors. The specialty of the incubator was thus formalized so that each incubated project “fit into its own box.”

38 At the time of the study, the incubator offered all the services for business creation and development in the same building: the business incubator itself, CCI, Chamber of Trades and Crafts, management services, financing platforms, accountants, etc. The incubator also offered office rentals at very competitive prices. More than ten years after its creation, it offers 25 offices and 11 workshops to business creators. Eighty-one companies have been created and 110 project leaders have been hosted.

39 The first analysis (Gabarret, Jaouen, Nakara & Vedel, 2014) of this incubator highlighted a gap between the incubator resources and its strategy, especially during the startup phase. This gap generated not only urgent actions, with “cobbled together” practices for the selection process, but also a paradox regarding the strategic orientation. For example, the strategy focused on recruiting highly innovative companies (especially in the cosmetics sector), whereas internally the resources and competences to support this type of company were insufficient and inadequate. Nevertheless, with several adaptation strategies (using bricolage in some cases), the incubator managed to survive despite a very competitive environment. At this point, our analysis suggested the interest of re-analyzing the startup process through the prism of bricolage in order to understand how it was manifested and operationalized in the manager’s actions.

2.2. Determining the criteria for the operationalization of bricolage

40 To identify the incubator’s bricolage practices during startup, we first turned to the literature to determine the criteria for operationalization (Baker, Miner & Eesley, 2003; Duymedjian & Rüling, 2010; Fisher, 2012; Gabarret, Jaouen, Nakara & Vedel, 2014; Jacquemin, Lesage & Ronteau, 2014; Jaouen & Nakara, 2014; Senyard et al., 2014). These criteria are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Criteria of the operationalization of bricolage

tableau im1

Table 1. Criteria of the operationalization of bricolage

2.3. Data collection

41 To conduct the research, we chose face-to-face semi-directive interviews (Miles, Huberman & Saldana, 2013). All managers, support staff and incubatees were interviewed between 2013 and 2014, with 23 interviews recorded and transcribed: four support staff (including the director), and 19 incubatees including three involved in the selection process. The sponsors were not interviewed for this part of the research as they had not been involved in the previous study (authors). Nevertheless, the discourses of the four support staff were triangulated to identify the sponsors’ expectations. The sample is presented in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2. List of interviewed incubates

tableau im2

Table 2. List of interviewed incubates

Table 3. List of interviewed support staff

Support staff Started working in incubator Age Background and specific competences
A1 2007 44 yr Prior work as a consultant
Incubator management, strategy, marketing, web
A2 2011 25 yr Recent graduate, hired at end of studies
Competition studies, generalist
A3 2012 28 yr Former incubatee
Web (marketing, development), social media
A4 2011 39 yr Prior position as an advisor in a management boutique
Cosmetics and sustainable development

Table 3. List of interviewed support staff

42 The discursive data was re-analyzed in its entirety with regard to bricolage practices (see data analysis detailed in the following section), and this revealed new issues. Indeed, “in the researcher’s own itinerary, there are breaks in the time required to conduct each study, but the data sometimes serve as a guide because they circulate from project to project” (Chabaud & Germain, 2006, p. 203).

2.4. Data analysis

43 The data analysis consisted of a manual thematic analysis of the discourses via content analysis: thematic coding, division and sequencing in units of analysis and meaning (Allard-Poesi, Drucker-Godard & Ehlinger, 1999; Huberman & Saldana, 2013). More than 36 hours of recordings were re-analyzed. The analysis was conducted independently by two pairs of researchers. When discrepancies appeared, the authors collectively re-analyzed the verbatim in question and, in each case, succeeded in refining the coding into more precise sub-themes.

44 The relevant themes and sub-themes of the previous study were reused:


  • For the entrepreneurs: selection, type of support received, general satisfaction, perception of the evolution of the incubator, exit from the incubator.
  • For the support personnel: professional experience, seniority within the incubator, type of projects hosted, selection, type of support provided to incubatees, perception of the evolution of the incubator, exit of “old” projects.

46 From the operationalization criteria identified in the literature and presented in Table 1, we added bricolage to the list of themes studied and re-analyzed the entirety of the retranscribed speeches to identify bricolage occurrences. The discourse corpus was analyzed with thematic coding. Table 4 presents the themes and sub-themes in the interview guide. An excerpt of the complete coding scheme is available in Appendix 1.

Table 4. Themes in the interview guide

Sub-themes Code
1. Selection 1.1. Duration of process SEL_DUR
1.2. Interlocuters SEL_INT
1.3. Process flow SEL_PROC
1.4. Satisfaction with selection (+ and -) SEL_SATISF
2. Support 2.1. Type of support ACC_TYP
2.2. Modalities ACC_MOD
2.3. Frequency and duration ACC_DUR
2.4. Interlocuters ACC_INT
2.5. Satisfaction with support (+ and -) ACC_SATISF
3. Perception of the incubator evolution
3.1. Perceived history of the incubator EVOL_HIST
3.2. Incubator organization EVOL_ORG
3.3. Environment and networks EVOL_ENVT
3.4. Interlocutors EVOL_INT
3.5. Processes EVOL_PROC
3.6. Procedures and formalization EVOL_FORMAL
3.7. Strong points EVOL_+
3.8. Points to be improved EVOL_-
4. Exit 4.1. Contractualization SORT_CONTRAT
4.2. Conditions for departure SORT_COND
4.3. Context SORT_CONTEXT
4.4. Satisfaction at departure (+ and -) SORT_SATISF
5. Bricolage 5.1. New mobilization of existing resources BRIC_REUSAG
5.2. Time gap BRIC_DECAL
5.3. Substitution of resources/competences BRIC_SUBS
5.4. Deviation of resources/competences from original functions BRIC_DETOURN
5.5. Circumvention BRIC _CONTOURN
5.6. Use of self-taught or amateur competences BRIC _DISPO
5.7. Recourse to complementary competences to compensate for current deficiencies BRIC_MOBIL
5.8. Creation of ad hoc tools BRIC_ADHOC
5.9. Incremental improvement of IS tools/ resources/competences BRIC_INCREM
5.10. Free or low-cost marketing actions BRIC_MKG
5.11. Network bricolage BRIC_NETW
5.12. Strategic improvisation BRIC_IMPRO
Specific questions for support personnel
6. Characteristics of support personnel 6.1. Professional experience INT_ACC_PROF
6.2. Competences INT_ACC_COMP
6.3. Seniority in the incubator INT_ACC_ANCIEN
7. Sponsors 7.1. Expectations of sponsors INT_ACC_ATT_SPO
7.2. Relations with sponsors INT_ACC_REL_SPO

Table 4. Themes in the interview guide

47 The analysis consisted of determining units of meaning (words, groups of words or sentences) and recording verbatims in intrasite matrices (Miles et al., 2013), interviewee by interviewee, including personal observations and remarks particularly illustrative of the interviewees. Then, these matrices were synthesized to compare the actors’ discourses on each theme, triangulate them, and identify constants and divergences (i.e., intersite matrices with themes in columns and interviewees in rows). This method revealed sub-themes, which enabled us to identify the bricolage practices (organizational bricolage related to selection and support, strategic bricolage).

3. Results

48 Data analysis identified several bricolage practices throughout the incubator development process. These practices were put into place to respond to the inadequate resources at incubator creation and the gap between these resources and the stated objectives of the sponsors.

3.1. Bricolage in selection practices

49 When the incubator was created (initiated by the community of municipalities as a sponsor), its goal was to boost the local economy, support young innovative companies, and keep them in the territory. In the traditional approach to creating an incubator, a feasibility study is recommended. This study helps establish the strategy in terms of objectives, resources, interests and competition. It also helps the sponsors understand the challenges of incubator creation and avoid errors of judgment. However, in this case, creation was a political decision. A single person was employed at startup, thus finding himself with a discrepancy between limited allocated resources and the political and economic objectives (to build and maintain territorial attractiveness for companies). To respond, the manager, and later the management team, set out to fill the incubator: all projects were accepted, including those that did not necessarily need support (Table 5).

50 The informal selection process based solely on filling the incubator followed the logic of bricolage, as no clear strategy was implemented at this stage to recruit new projects. Some were selected by word of mouth. Others were selected under constraint, with several entrepreneurs choosing the incubator because they had been refused by more prestigious incubators. The manager thus “accumulated” resources, in this case through projects that would fill the structure and give it life (first stage of bricolage), without established formalized selection criteria. In the second step, this accumulation made it possible to identify combinations and/or synergies between projects (second stage of bricolage), although with a time lag between the “stocking” of resources (here projects) and their use through the deployment of synergies.

51 The first manager, followed by the second manager and his team, chose projects that “might have connections” but without having a clear idea of how to build synergies. Selection was quantitative more than qualitative. In addition, networks (i.e., sponsors, the personal contacts of the successive managers, and the networks of the incubatees themselves) were used to recruit candidates and were then reused for the selection committees. Thus, project selection was partly determined by the competences of the support personnel. For example, one staff member who was specialized in video games recruited several projects operating in this sector, some of the incubatees appearing in his professional and/or personal networks. Bricolage was also evident in that recruitment tools were created ad hoc, contractualization was not automatic, and when it existed it was minimalist.

Table 5. Identification of bricolage in the selection pratices*

Sub-theme Bricolage in selection Support staff verbatims Incubatee verbatims
Time gap between stocking resources and using them Selection and “stocking” of projects in a strategy to fill the incubator, with no idea of their coherence or use “The incubator is 10 years old, and there were 5 years of nothing. All projects went to [city A’s Incubator] or [city B’s incubator]. Here, there were not many people, so they furnished the place. Those were the words of the former manager, they furnished it. They took anyone” [A3]
“At one point, you had to fill it, there’s no point hiding from this [...] The question of synergies, strategy and all that came later” [A1]
“I came here just looking for a space. I had gone to [city A’s incubator] and they had no space at the time, in 2006, so I came here […] I was taken immediately” [E6]
“I was one of the very first projects to set up here, and I saw all the others arrive … they accepted all the projects!” [E12]
Substitution of resources/competences Support staff replaced by an incubatee “Sometimes one of our colleagues was sick and there weren’t enough of us for an interview, so we’d ask a guy here [incubatee] to stand in on short notice” [A3]
“Regularly, we had to get one or two incubatees to sit in on interviews with us” [A1]
“They often called on me to be part of the [selection] committee. I build SME software so you can imagine that I know how to read a business plan and find the weaknesses!” [E3]
Diversion of resources/competences from their initial functions The support staff starts giving support in the selection phase “The project holders are often surprised when they come to the selection interview that [support staff A1] is already giving them support when they haven’t even finished with the selection committee!” [A2] It was really informal [the selection process], the first time I went for a one-hour interview [with the first manager] and I got there at 8 in the morning and left at 2-3 in the afternoon, without eating, only working, and it was like this starting from the first time [E16]
Recourse to complementary competences to compensate for current deficiencies The deficiencies in the support staff competences to assess and select projects was made up for by external professionals or incubatees “When a projects is really specific, we have to find someone who can really challenge it during the interview, so we turn to our network” [A4]
“We bring in a lot of outsiders for the [selection] interviews, especially for complex projects. This can be former incubatees, university staff, partners like the CCI or other institutions, the community of municipalities” [A2]
“In my interview, there was a whole team [the support staff at that time], an incubate, another head of a company that I’ve never seen again, and a person from the regional government, I think” [E11]
Creation of ad hoc tools Selection criteria and tools created by the manager for his use only “At that time, he [the first manager] did everything, he chose the projects, he followed them, and there was no contract […] he had his method, and he was multi-skilled […] he was the only one here, so when he left, well everything had to be created again, all the tools, because nothing was useable […] nothing was formalized” [A1]
Incremental improvement of IS tools/resources/competences Incremental improvement of selection process “Now we do a first interview, which starts a 4-month pre-incubation phase, and then we repeat the interview with a real committee […] Little by little we’re improving […] but it’s happening in baby steps” [A1] “When [the first manager] decided, he was really tough, he judged the relevance of the project and the person in front of him […] there was no committee. There were eventually two collaborators, but at the start he was alone. Little by little it’s become better structured” [E16]
Free or low-cost marketing actions Use of social media and personal networks to gain visibility We don’t have a lot of financial resources, we’re a small incubator, so we do the best we can with social media, personal networks, breakfast meetings, etc.” [A3]
“To ensure visibility, we optimize […] we use social media […]” X
“We met by chance at a business fair. He [the former manager] told me: ‘come with us, we’re opening an incubator and there’s a place for you,’ we got along and so, it happened like that, we met at this fair […], he didn’t even have a stand” [E12]
Network bricolage Using networks to recruit new project holders “Networks bring us project holders. Often these are people who were refused by [incubator A], and they come here because they know we’re more accessible” [A3] “We heard a lot about incubator A, and B also [the competition], and we met someone who knew the manager of this incubator who told us to visit. We tried A but they had a company in a field very close to ours so there was a conflict of interest. So we used this contact and came here” [E8]

Table 5. Identification of bricolage in the selection pratices*

* Some of the sub-themes linked to bricolage are not presented because no verbatim linked to these sub-themes was identified.

3.2. Bricolage in support practices

52 In 2008, new management arrived. The first phase (2003-2008) had been marked by a lack of formalization and a logic of filling vacancies, with no coherence between the projects. In 2008, the sponsors had new requirements: to improve the incubator’s visibility and economic impact. They thus imposed a business park to host the mature incubated companies, thus freeing up space for new entrants.

53 In this context, the new manager, lacking resources, had to put together a new team. Indeed, after the first manager’s dismissal, the former support staff all resigned. The formation of the new team and the support practices that followed were thus the result of many bricolage practices. The new manager used the means at his disposal to meet a new constraint: increasing sponsor involvement. The new support team, being “younger” and “less experienced,” was considered more like “coaches” or “facilitators” (they gave the entrepreneurs more freedom) than providers of support.

54 To compensate for the lack of competences, the manager surrounded himself with a network of external experts that he called on as needed and associated interested incubatees to mentor new incubatees. Again, bricolage characterized this practice in that the manager “substituted” one resource for another and/or diverted it from its primary function (here, having an incubatee function in a support role). The support staff increasingly took on the role of intermediaries between the incubated companies and the external experts (consultants, lawyers, accountants, etc.).

55 In the same vein, faced with the shortcomings of the new "less experienced" team, the new manager made temporary (then regular) use of former (or current) incubated entrepreneurs to replace one of the staff members and respond to certain queries from project holders. Thus, an incubatee abandoned his project, which was stagnating, and was recruited by the incubator. This recruitment was hastily accomplished without really taking into account the needs of the incubator in terms of support.

56 Bricolage was also used to train some of the new support team. Indeed, faced with the presence of several cosmetics companies, one of the support staff had to be trained “on the job” (A4) to meet their specific needs. Table 6 presents extracts of the illustrative verbatims.

Table 6. Identification of bricolage in the support practices

Sub-theme Bricolage in the support Support staff verbatims Incubatee verbatims
Substitution of resources/
Support staff substitutable depending on availability and/or demand “Between the support staff, we really work as a team, we count on each other… sometimes we don’t know how to help an entrepreneur, we don’t have the means, so we have to improvise and in that case we might have someone else step in to help” [A2] “Often, the person I’m dealing with changes. I have someone officially following me, but in fact depending on my needs I might see someone else […] sometimes I might even get sent to another entrepreneur in the house” [E12]
Diversion of resources/competences from the initial functions The incubatees and elected officials are invested in helping the project holders “The incubatees give each other advice, they kind of play our role, and this is good because they speak the same language, and sometimes they listen better when it’s another entrepreneur who says something, rather than us” [A2] “The elected officials play the same role as the support staff sometimes, they think they’re consultants” [E13]
“In some cases, more than anything I trained the support staff… but I’m an incubatee here!” [E3]
Using self-taught or amateur competences A support staff member is trained on the job by an incubatee “[A4], she needed training, because we began to have more and more specific questions about cosmetics and we didn’t know how to respond. So she got trained on the job […] and now she’s our cosmetics go-to person” [A1] “We had two cosmetics projects [...] so they had to train someone in this sector […] the person was training on the job and she came to see me [laughs] so I could train her on certain technical aspects” [E9] 
Recourse to complementary competences to make up for current deficiencies Deficient staff competences in support, made up for by external consultants or incubatees “The elected officials are very involved in the life of the incubator […] they give advice, they sometimes give support, they like this […] On some legal or technical points it’s useful” [A2]
“We depend on a large network of expert partners, and we have to because there are only four of us and we don’t know everything” [A1]
“I have the feeling that the new team is less involved with support… they call in outside experts and lead meetings […] They create links between the incubated projects and the outside… This is good, they open up more contacts with the outside world, people in the region, etc., but they’re less involved with actual support… They’re less good at that” [E16]
Incremental improvement of IS tools/resources/competences Incremental improvement in the support process and the information system “Little by little our methods have become more structured. But we started with nothing. The first manager had an old-fashioned way of doing things, informal, almost amical. But that doesn’t always work…We needed formalized tools and processes. That’s what we’re doing, little by little as we have the time” [A1]
Network bricolage Using networks to vary the sources of support and advice “We have lots of meeting times and places [...] it works very well [...] it’s easy and it works very well [...] We put our project holders in contact with institutional actors, former incubatees, experts of all kinds, and they love it. It’s a great success” [A1] “They have lots of breakfast meetings. It’s supposed to connect us up with others, and it replaces the support to some extent” [E11]
“There are a lot of events, often lunches or cocktails so we can meet local actors and other business leaders [...] They try to gather people together according to the business sector. Or they try to put us into relation when they see a possibility for synergy” [E11]
“The new support staff are more involved with the more mature businesses in the park and outside stakeholders […] there’s more contact with the outside world but not more support” [E5]

Table 6. Identification of bricolage in the support practices

3.3. Positioning the incubator: from organizational bricolage to strategic bricolage

57 With regard to the criteria of Carayannis and von Zedtwitz (2005), the sponsors had originally positioned the incubator as not-for-profit, prioritizing economic development with local (or even regional) geographical scope without particular industrial positioning. They viewed it as more of an economic development incubator (as opposed to a tenancy-only incubator, Brooks, 1986; Allen & McCluskey, 1990; Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005; Grimaldi & Grandi, 2005) ‒ that is, one that prepares companies to survive on their own and remain in the area. In principle, this implies selecting more innovative companies, thus requiring more support (Brooks, 1986; Bollingtoft & Ulhoi, 2005), and therefore more resources and services than the simple provision of facilities.

58 However, the resources made available to it tended toward those of an incubator that merely offers tenancy: a single support staff member, selection almost non-existent, little support. Indeed, companies incubated in this type of structure may not be particularly innovative and do not need much assistance. The gap between the sponsors’ expectations and the available resources generated several practices of organizational bricolage, as well as the construction of an emerging strategy that was adapted as the incubator filled up.

59 Thus, to cope with the constraints of the environment, the lack of a clear business plan at startup, and sponsors’ expectations disproportionate to the available resources, the successive management teams were forced to turn to bricolage for lack of adequate resources, whether for selection or support practices. These organizational bricolage practices had several effects:


  • With regard to selection, bricolage manifested as an accumulation of projects (stocking of resources) and a set of practices incrementally improved over the years. These practices made it possible to fill the incubator and thus support its survival over the early years. However, several undesirable consequences appeared: the difficulty of getting certain incubated companies to exit (because no contract at selection by the first management team meant an exit had never been planned) and the presence of projects with low economic potential. They were “stuck” in the incubator and making them leave would condemn them to failure.
  • With regard to support, bricolage temporarily made up for deficiencies in resources and internal competences without heavy investment by favoring diversion and the reuse of skills. Although this approach has been criticized by some incubators because it is considered too “artisanal,” it nevertheless made it possible to ensure incubator survival by offering alternative advice (from other incubatees or external networks) or complementary advantages to make up for the shortcomings of some support staff (i.e., cheap rents, positive work climate, proximity and conviviality “offsetting” the lack of support).

61 By mobilizing existing resources, and through a learning process linked to successive bricolage practices, the manager A1 was able to overcome the bias of functional fixedness put forward by German and Barrett (2005), then taken up by Duymedjian (2010), and defined as a cognitive bias that prevents individuals from innovating. This bias implies that the individual has difficulty in imagining another purpose for a resource other than its usual use. It thus disrupts the capabilities of functional diversion that the intellect might imagine for a given resource (Duymedjian, 2010). The author has shown that the bricoleur manages to overcome this bias. In the case studied here, A1 did so in several ways. He transformed the incubatees, first as support to other incubatees and then as true pillars of the incubator’s strategic orientation. Similarly, the sponsors were no longer considered only as sponsors, but became actors in the selection of projects. Some incubatees trained the support staff (a good example being in cosmetics), the staff thus becoming themselves supported in their technical apprenticeship.

62 The repeated organizational bricolage practices thus led to the learning and development of resource diversion and reuse routines. This fostered the emergence of development opportunities, which the A1 manager seized on by developing strategic bricolage practices.

63 Indeed, after the strategy of filling the incubator, the choice was made to orient the incubator toward specialization following the sponsors’ request to create specialized poles in order to set up an economic showcase for their city. At that time, two cosmetics companies in the incubator had high potential for development. A1 seized this opportunity to create a niche for the incubator. Perceiving that this new positioning would satisfy the sponsors and improve the incubator’s visibility, he quickly communicated on the development of the incubator’s specialization in this sector. The idea was to attract new cosmetics companies, along with additional financing and an adapted real estate infrastructure.

64 Two additional companies were recruited in 2009 and again in 2012. This strategy, divided into two independent “times” (a stocking phase and a resource combination phase), paid off as it allowed the incubator to be recognized and visible in this segment. Moreover, a communication plan was implemented. In 2012, the company E14 was selected with the aim of strengthening the incubator’s specialization. This strategy also made it stand out from the competition of other incubations in the region.

65 In a second step, the excessive specialization conveyed by the incubator’s communication strategy led to stagnation in the candidatures. Yet, this communicated strategy was not representative of the reality of the incubated projects and/or the candidates for incubation. It was thus decided to return to a more general positioning: cosmetics and health, web services, tourism and service innovation. Once again, the positioning was determined a posteriori based on the “stock” of incubated projects. These decisions were made based on the nature of the incubated projects (i.e., the “stock” of existing companies was used to create a specialty), and reflected an adaptive bricolage strategy to legitimize the incubator.

66 However, these strategies were adopted without taking into account the fact that no real estate infrastructure in the city would be able to accommodate these businesses once they were out of the incubator. The sponsors’ initial objective in creating this incubator was to encourage companies to settle in the territory and keep them on site. Paradoxically, no infrastructure was put into place. It was decided, a posteriori and under the manager’s urging, to build a real business park to keep these businesses in the territory and prevent them from moving to the surrounding big cities. Thus in 2015, 12 years after incubator creation, a business center for all sectors combined was created in the city center, with a specialized park for cosmetics companies planned in a neighboring village. Again, through bricolage practices, the incubator was able to create a cosmetics center in the region and generate a competitive advantage for the territory in comparison with the neighboring municipalities. Bricolage therefore induced incremental strategies and trial and error, but the consequences of error were not irremediable because the resources did not require heavy investment.

Table 7. Identification of strategic bricolage

Sub-theme Strategic bricolage Support staff verbatims Incubatee verbatims
Strategic improvisation Improvised and adaptive strategy

Mobilization and adaptation of resources according to needs
“I think that we had the capacity to adapt on a permanent basis, to respond ‘yes, that’s possible’ to those who gave us orders, even when we didn’t know how we would do it. We always found a solution” [A1]
“Specialization kind of happened on its own. We had several cosmetics companies here and thought that synergies might be possible and that this might attract others” [A1]

“I’ve been [part of the support staff] here for 6 months […] I was incubated here… I got along very well with the new manager and his team, he thought I had an interesting approach so he asked me to join the team” [A3]
I’ve been here from almost the beginning of [the incubator]. It used to be very artisanal, but I’ve got to hand it to them for how they survived with so few resources. […] There are big ones [competitors], and it’s hard to find your place in all this. Both [the former manager] and [A1], they both did a great job. They always found the right technique at the right time. And today, look, it’s doing well” [E3]
Time gap between stocking resources and using them Stage 1
Stocking projects through a strategy of filling the incubator, with no idea about project coherence or their use
“The incubator is now 10 years old, with 5 years of nothing. All the projects went to [the incubator in city A], or [the incubator in city B]. Here, there wasn’t much left so we furnished it. Those are the words of the old manager, they furnished it. They took a little of everything” [A3]
“At one point they had to fill it up, no point denying it […] The question of synergies, strategies and all that came later” [A1]
“I got in contact with the incubator because I was just looking for space. I went to [incubator A], there was no space at that time, in 2006, so I came here […] I was taken right away” [E6]
I was one of the first companies to start here and I’ve seen all my successors … They accept all projects!” [E12]
Stage 2
From the stock of available projects, identification of possible synergies and specialization in cosmetics
“There was a cosmetics company, then two, and then we thought it might be interesting to make it a specialty so we could attract more” [A1]
“We had to be able to identify ourselves in this niche, and for cosmetics, there was no one [no competition]. There was something to do here, we had these two beautiful companies here for a few years, it was a niche to seize” [A4]
“After us, other companies [in cosmetics] came, they sort of took advantage of our success in communicating […] it’s good for us also because now they’re going to put up a building just for us” [E9]
Stage 3
2nd observation of stocking projects and adaptation of strategy
“At one point, we were a bit limited [with] cosmetics, it didn’t represent all the projects we were incubating. So we looked at who was there and asked ‘what can we do?’ and we decided to enlarge our range of activities” [A2] “I think it was an opportunity for them and now they’re driving the project to start up the cosmetics park. At first, I thought they hadn’t decided because it’s multidisciplinary here with communication, tourism, medicine and health, but it turns out that there were several cosmetics projects at the same time […] and these projects were working” [E16]
Substitution of resources/competences Specialized incubatees become experts and help position the incubator “We were massively mobilized” [E9]
“At one point, it was our showcase and our reference in cosmetics” [A1]
“I was part of all the selection committees for the cosmetics companies! I was the committee expert on cosmetics” [E9]
Diverting resources/competences from their initial function Constructing strategic competence in support needed an incubatee diverting the competence of an incubatee “So one of us had to be trained” [A4]
“It was a good opportunity for her to specialize a bit […] I asked [E9] to do it [train her]” [A1]
“I was one [among others] who trained her” [A4]. “They wanted to attract cosmetics companies but no one really knew the sector […] so it was the world kind of turned on its head” [E9]
Circumvention The lack of an exit clause in the support contracts was circumvented by negotiation “Because things were not formalized, it was hard to get companies to leave. No exit clause had been signed ... so we’re fixing the situation on a case by case basis but it’s complicated” [A3]
“A business center is planned to welcome companies at the exit, it took time to validate the project but it’s planned” [A4]
“They want us to go but they have nothing to propose. They should have a building for us to move to but nothing is happening […] the rent here isn’t expensive […] financially, I’m in no hurry to leave but it’s getting crowded here” [E9]
“We should have gone by now but we have nowhere to go! They’re making us wait [a building is being planned] […] Since they want to keep us in this town and the rent isn’t very expensive, we stay and that suits everyone” [E4]
Network bricolage Using networks to promote the new positioning “We communicated a lot through the network, talking with people, the web. At every event we were at, we talked about our new positioning” [A1]
“We really communicated as much as we could” [A3]
“For a while there they were focused on cosmetics everywhere, at breakfast meetings, we heard all about it. [laughs] It got two other companies to join, however! […] But that’s all” [E10]

Table 7. Identification of strategic bricolage

4. Discussion

4.1. Theoretical contributions

67 The results identify and operationalize the bricolage practices of an incubator in a context of scarce resources. They thus contribute to the literature on incubation by specifically addressing the startup context and showing that, in contrast to the findings of several previous studies (e.g., Bergek & Norrman, 2008), startup is not only a causal process but can also be dealt with through bricolage. The table below provides a summary of both types of strategies when starting an incubator.

Table 8. Incubator startup: causal and bricolage approaches

Dimensions Causal approach Bricolage approach
Market analysis Strong. Incubators respond to market imperfections Weak or inexistant. Market imperfections are not necessarily identified
Available resources Substantial Few
Selection Strong selection oriented toward the project or individuals

Needs a strong capacity to judge a team, individual, or project (psychological and/or technological competences)

The process must be formalized

Selecting similar projects is avoided because of the potential competition
No initial selection. Logic of stocking, accumulation

As the incubator lacks legitimacy and resources, selection is incremental based on projects that agree to enter the incubator

No need for formalized selection but a capacity to use complementary resources to select projects

The complementarity of projects is possible: selecting similar projects makes it easier for the incubator to specialize
Support The role of stakeholders is well identified: support, sponsors, incubated companies Reuse of resources (substitution, diversion) helps mix the genres
Collaborative approach to support
Synergies Synergies between actors must be thought of first: services, resources and aids must be those that the incubatee needs Synergies may appear along the way, but they are essential for the good functioning of the incubator
Adaptability vis-à-vis the environment Weak

Selection and support practices can be put into place in a more or less strict manner to respond to environmental constraints (rigid selection criteria, intensity of the follow-up)

Practices adapt to the environment (by reusing available resources and competences)

Strategy Deliberate strategy

Logic of profitability and control of investments for sponsors
Improvised and adaptive strategy

Logic of survival and development of local employment

Table 8. Incubator startup: causal and bricolage approaches

68 This research was conducted at the intersection of the entrepreneurship, strategy, and organization fields. The results reveal a strategy of bricolage, which might be related to the concept of “emerging strategies” described by Mintzberg and Walters (1985). These strategies tend to appear when there is a gap between the formulation of the strategy and its implementation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bricolage and emerging strategies (inspired by Mintzberg and Waters, 1985)

figure im3

Figure 1. Bricolage and emerging strategies (inspired by Mintzberg and Waters, 1985)

69 Incubators may end up in this configuration. The sponsor exerts pressure to direct the incubator strategy and the management team responds to it. With reference to the work of Mintzberg and Waters (1985), it thus appears that an incubator strategy may in part be deliberate, imposed by political stakeholders with territorial issues, and may in part consist of the abandonment of this strategy because of insufficient resources ‒ but nevertheless generating do-it-yourself practices that lead to new adaptation strategies. This is in line with the work of Carayannis and von Zedtwitz (2005), who point out that it is not uncommon to observe that the preferences and skills of incubator managers are at the origin of certain choices of specialization. In the case presented here, the recourse to bricolage led to a specialization in cosmetics. This illustration of the intertwining of deliberate and emerging strategies in this sense joins the work of Rose and Cray (2013), who stated that strategies need to evolve. The bricolage strategy therefore sometimes better represents reality.

70 This research also contributes to the recent work on bricolage by examining bricolage in an incubator and illustrating its relevance to understanding how an organization (here the incubator) is able to cope with scarce resources (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Gras & Nason, 2015) and overcome functional fixedness bias to satisfy stakeholders. Indeed, by systematically turning to bricolage, the managers and employees demonstrated great versatility in improving their stock of knowledge, a finding that echoes Lévi-Strauss (1962), who noted that the bricoleur is able to perform a great number of diverse tasks (p. 27). Being little sensitive to the cognitive bias of functional fixedness (German & Barrett, 2005; Duymedjian, 2010), the management team had the ability to perceive latent competencies in the different actors and “substitute” one resource for another by diverting it from its primary function. Thus, bricolage implies far more than an occasional adaptation tool. It may be an interesting way to establish organizational routines to improve existing processes, develop new and more efficient processes (Fisher, 2012), and boost creativity (Baker et al., 2003; Seynard et al., 2014) by going beyond functional fixedness to stimulate innovation (Miner, Bassoff & Moorman, 2001; Garud & Karnoe, 2003; Andersen, 2008).

4.2. Managerial contributions

71 From a practical viewpoint, this research questions the interventionism of public authorities (the sponsors in our case) in incubator strategy and the implications for bricolage solutions. Indeed, certain limitations in terms of governance were observed. Thus, the departure of the first team de facto placed the second management team into a situation of bricolage to survive. The new manager had no choice but to make do with the resources at his disposal, without having been able to first carefully assemble them to meet the sponsors’ demands. It should be noted that the high time pressure generally exerted on incubator managers tends to favor the use of bricolage and “whatever is at hand”. The differences between the strategic vision of public authorities, for whom the incubator should be an “agency for local economic development”, and the reality of operationalization force the management team to satisfy the sponsors by turning to bricolage strategies. In this regard, stakeholders should be more transparent about their expectations and the resources they are able to make available to meet them.

72 For managers, this work provides an example of the responsiveness of a management team that succeeded in ensuring incubator survival with very limited resources (more than ten times lower than those of its direct competitors). The managers of small local incubators who find themselves in this type of situation need to: (1) carefully identify their bricolage practices within the incubator and (2) ensure that they are deployable and transferable to the rest of the team, so that (3) they can be integrated as effective strategies into an environment where resources are scarce, thereby becoming part of the organizational culture.

73 The results of this research also highlight the diversity of types of bricolage practices (notably in selection, support and strategy). For each type, we ultimately observed new ways to recombine existing resources, creative ways to overcome the lack of obvious solutions, and inventiveness in using and reusing the available means to get by and meet the sponsors’ expectations. We therefore recommend that the managers of small incubators with few resources consider bricolage as a (beneficial) tool for individual and collective reflection to stimulate the emergence of new ideas. This advice might also be extended to all actors involved in a bricolage process, as such reflection might well prompt them to leave their comfort zone to find that they can go a little beyond their limits. In this case study, for example, we saw how incubatees (e.g., in the cosmetics industry) became trainers alongside the support staff as part of the bricolage process.

74 We also observed that bricolage facilitated a form of cooperation between the incubator’s internal and external stakeholders. Thus, the incubator manager and his support staff compensated for the lack of support skills by making use of a network of external experts, and they also did not hesitate to use incubatees to help them. This bricolage strategy helped to ensure co-support for new projects and sometimes revealed valuable synergies between stakeholders. Moreover, by providing support to the manager A1 and his staff during the selection and support phases, the incubatees also became actors of the incubator’s strategic orientation. Similarly, the role of the sponsors was expanded as they too became actors in the selection of incubated projects. Ultimately, it is reasonable to assume that this successful co-construction will enable the incubator to better address other critical stages in its growth phase.

75 In this research, we were able to operationalize bricolage practices in the context of incubation. We thus identified these practices in: (1) the selection process, (2) the support process, and (3) the changes in strategic positioning to meet the sponsors’ expectations. Given the importance of these three dimensions, we might legitimately question the impact of these bricolage practices on this incubator’s survival. Without these practices and given the scarce resources, would this incubator have survived and grown over these years? Is not it time for more managers to adopt (and acknowledge?) a full-fledged bricolage strategy? If they were to do so, they would contribute to overcoming the rather negative connotation of a term that still connotes “a job poorly done”. Bricolage in fact requires several competences: versatility, creativity, adaptability, ability to overcome the biases of functional fixedness, and so on. Every manager (and their support team) would do well to develop these competences to better achieve their goals.


76 This research explored the startup of an incubator within the framework of bricolage practices (Baker & Nelson, 2005). It showed that the two managers multiplied the practices of organizational and strategic bricolage to ensure incubator survival in a context of limited resources (reuse, circumvention, diversion of resources, substitution, bricolage networks, etc.), in both selection and support processes, as well as strategic adaptation.

77 Theoretically, this research contributes to the work on incubator structuring processes and shows that incubator creation may follow iterative processes far removed from the normative prescriptions of the books from the 2000s (Rice & Matthews, 1995; Lalkaka, 2006). Our study shows that when an incubator is faced with a lack of resources or a lack of precision in the objectives, bricolage, as a flexible strategy implemented in an emergent way, may be a solution to ensure survival. From a methodological viewpoint, this work made it possible to identify and operationalize several bricolage criteria in terms of selection, support and strategy. Last, from a managerial viewpoint, this research invites incubator managers to acknowledge bricolage as a strategy in its own right and sponsors to take better account of the resources made available to reach their objectives.

78 This research nevertheless has limitations. First, concerning the theoretical framework, we chose not to put bricolage into perspective with effectuation. Yet doing so would have constituted a salient theoretical perspective on our field of research. Indeed, the effectuation logic is adapted to contexts of uncertainty (Jacquemin & Lesage, 2016) and is also a form of emerging strategy. It might have been relevant to explore this duality of bricolage/effectuation, just as it might have been interesting to study the strategic decision process from the effectual/causal perspective (Reymen et al., 2015). Incubator growth therefore seems to provide a good context for examining the theoretical differences between the two approaches and is a promising avenue for research. In addition, we were unable to question the sponsors and analyze their viewpoints. Yet this might have helped us to better understand the misaligned interests/expectations of the stakeholders (managers, support staff, incubatees, etc.). Triangulating the different perceptions would have provided insight on this point. Future work should take this limitation into account because the sponsors’ role is essential in the incubator startup phase. Other classic limitations of qualitative analyses were related to the generalization of the results. Future research should focus on replicating this type of analysis by considering the incubator as an organization as such. Indeed, in the tradition of Welter, Mauer and Wuebker (2016), we believe that continuing to study organizations that differ from the classic enterprise will help to better define the contours of these new theories of entrepreneurial emergence (effectuation, bricolage, etc.), in both their differences and their commonalities.

Code : 1. SEL (Selection of incubatees) / Sub-code : 1.3. SEL_PROC / Definition of code : Flow of the selection process

Procedure for linking with the literature Verbatims from interviews Second level sub-codes
For Lumpkin & Ireland (1988) and Bergek & Norrman (2008), the selection process is an integral part of the incubator’s business model (with infrastructure, support, mediation, and graduation/exit),
Selection refers to decisions to accept or reject candidate projects for incubation. Selection is a matter of criteria, the flexibility of these criteria, and the flow of the process.
“For me, there was no selection process … I saw this man [first manager] who told me that I had to work on this and that, but he never gave me the impression that he was selecting me … Anybody could come” [E11]
“There wasn’t much selection with the first team, and [the manager] was alone there for a while, so he was working completely on feeling” [A4]
(No selection process)
“At first, it was any which way […] We met [the first manager] at an evening event of the Young Managers’ Club. He said ‘what you’re doing looks good’ and he gave me his business card, telling me to come by and see, and a week later I was in the incubator! […] Things are different now, more serious […] there’s a committee, oral presentations” [E6]
“We’re improving our process [of selection] day after day, we’re formalizing it, structuring it […] The most complicated part is the exit clause, it’s hard to tell someone they have to leave in 5 years maximum when there are other companies that have been there from the beginning! […] so we’re improving things little by little” [A1]
(Improving the process over time)
“First, they apply by submitting a business plan. Then they come before the committee. The pre-incubation period lasts 4 months, and at this point, we accept almost everyone, they test out our coworking space, and they come before the committee 4 months later. At this point, we give it a lot of thought and decide whether or not to take them” [A3]
“Now it’s a lot more formalized, we have defined steps that we follow” [A2]
(Formalizing the process)

Code : 1. SEL (Selection of incubatees) / Sub-code : 1.3. SEL_PROC / Definition of code : Flow of the selection process


Code : 5. BRIC (Bricolage) / Sub-code : 5.2. BRIC_GAP / Definition of code : Time gap between stocking resources and using them

Procedure for linking with the literature Verbatims from interviews Second level sub-codes
According to Duymedjian (2010), the first step of bricolage is collecting resources in an unplanned way to build up a stock. Bricolage differs from improvisation by a time scale that goes way beyond the present moment. “We went through a long period where we couldn’t really make a selection […]. The projects entered, we took any project with potential whatever the sector. Little by little we began to see the connections between them, the potential synergies” [A4]
“At first, we couldn’t see what we could do together, we were all from such different backgrounds […]. And then over the course of those little breakfasts, we began, between the coffee and the croissants, to imagine shared projects” [E13]
(Time gap between  stocking projects and developing synergies)
“First there was one cosmetics company, then two, then we thought it might be interesting to specialize and attract more” [A1]
“We had to be recognized for this niche, for cosmetics, there was nobody else [no competition]. There was something to do there, we had two nice companies incubated for the past few years, and this was a niche to get hold of” [A4]
“We had two [cosmetics companies] here that were doing well, and when they [the sponsors] put pressure on them, they said ‘and what about developing cosmetics?’ […] and that’s how it happened” [E9]
(Time gap between project entry and formulation of a specialization strategy)

Code : 5. BRIC (Bricolage) / Sub-code : 5.2. BRIC_GAP / Definition of code : Time gap between stocking resources and using them

Annabelle Jaouen and Walid Nakara are members of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Chair, which is part of LabEx Entrepreneurship (University of Montpellier, France) and funded by the French government (Labex Entreprendre, ANR-10-Labex-11-01).

In the academic literature, incubators are mainly described in a normative and causal manner. The purpose of this article is to analyze the startup phase of an incubator from the perspective of bricolage. This research explores how bricolage practices enable resource-limited incubators to survive in a highly competitive environment. The research method is qualitative and based on an in-depth case study. Twenty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted (4 with support staff and 19 with incubatees). The results show that bricolage was used for selection and support practices, which ultimately influenced the incubator’s strategy.

  • Incubator
  • bricolage
  • startup
  • survival
  • resources
  • selection
  • support
  • strategy.

Dans la littérature académique, les incubateurs ont été décrits majoritairement de manière normative et causale. L’objectif de cet article est d’analyser la phase de démarrage d’une structure d’incubation en utilisant le cadre théorique du bricolage. Cette recherche vise à explorer comment les pratiques de bricolage peuvent permettre à des incubateurs en manque de ressources d’assurer leur survie dans un environnement fortement concurrentiel. La méthode de recherche est qualitative et fondée sur une étude de cas en profondeur. Au total, 23 entretiens semi-directifs ont été menés (quatre accompagnateurs et 19 porteurs de projet). Les résultats montrent que le bricolage est présent dans les pratiques de sélection et d’accompagnement. Ceci influence, au final, la stratégie menée par l’incubateur.

  • Incubateur
  • bricolage
  • démarrage
  • survie
  • ressources
  • sélection
  • accompagnement
  • stratégie.


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Walid A. Nakara
Montpellier Business School
Chaire Entrepreneuriat Social et Inclusion
2300 av des Moulins – 34185 Montpellier Cedex 4
Annabelle Jaouen
Montpellier Business School
2300 av des Moulins – 34185 Montpellier Cedex 4
Benjamin Vedel
Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
19 allée des Vignes, 78120 Rambouillet
Inés Gabarret
ESSCA School of Management
55 quai Alphonse Le Gallo, 92513 Boulogne-Billancourt cedex France
Aude d’Andria
Université d’Évry Val d’Essonne,
2, rue du Facteur Cheval – 91025 Évry cedex France
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 10/06/2019
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