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Not such a straight line after all

Workarounds: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work
Russell Bishop. McGraw-Hill Ryerson. 2011.

Computers and the systems thinking that goes with them have been effectively embedded in our culture for at least two whole generations. We began including them by looking at ways computers might imitate and enhance how we do (or did) things. However, we’ re now learning how to make over the whole human side of the workplace the way work and to use what they’ve taught us about ourselves to re-engineer our interpersonal interactions.

Workarounds as an idea is now passing into general usage, but Russell Bishop, now an editor and columnist with the Huffington Post, remembers the origins of the term, namely in the software patches used to get around operational bugs. As the author notes, the original computer “bug” was in fact an insect jammed in the workings of an early walk- in mainframe.

Bishop uses the workaround metaphor to look at both the individual and the many connections or divisions that abound in the workplace. In order to talk about workarounds in any context the reader naturally must have some idea about how things are supposed to work. This is not always easy to explain and it’s a challenge to the author to set up the need for any given workaround without veering off along some “Business 101″ tangent. He does a credible job of sticking to the main road though and his case studies stay with the reader as useful enrichment.

In deciding whether a workaround is necessary, you must know at which level you need to intervene. “It All Starts with You” is the title of Chapter One in large measure because you generally have more control over your own intentions and actions than anyone else’s. In a bullseye diagram Bishop draws a circle labeled “influence” around the core of control at the centre representing what you can do on your own. This ring represents a zone where you should do your best with the caution that ultimately it isn’t your call. The final outer ring asks for a response and in a real sense is a stubborn given like the weather or the market. The key is not to fret about this environmental ring but to remain flexible and prepare.

Where are we likely to need to workaround? As David Allen author of Getting Things Done and Bishop’s former associate explains in the introduction, whenever a gap between strategy and execution looms so large it’s unlikely to be bridged by business as usual, a workaround may be in order. There are preconditions of course. A successful workaround always requires clear intention, ideally some real control in the situation and the capacity to influence other players as needed.

The author suggests several typical situations where workarounds might be the only lifeline. Bureaucracies build fiefdoms, cultures and rituals. These are often necessary evils to keep the ball in play, but sometimes the commonplaces of the organization become ends in themselves or simply derail through accumulated complexity. Borrowing from the programmer’s notebook saves the day. Let’s not over romanticize or overuse the workaround option. It’s a surprisingly short trip from fixer to misfit status.
Workarounds that Work is sound practical advice for leaders and professionals modestly but forthrightly offered. Nevertheless, it plants seeds of rebellion too. Where would the great corporations be if the ranks of minions and office politicos began to care more about results than procedure? What if public servants started serving the public rather than their all-consuming careers? A fine but critical distinction needs to be drawn between risk management and risk aversion. Not everyone can muster the courage or clout to make it.

Nevertheless, the technology that generated the workaround metaphor is also creating environments where workarounds become truly acceptable, robustly viable and ultimately required. We’re seeing sea changes in political movements, popular trends and spontaneous responses to common complaints. Spurred on by social media or viral messaging or crowd sourcing, everywhere people embrace the world of the workaround with bold, even reckless abandon. Yet as this book shows us, workarounds needn’t be dangerous if adroitly executed.

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