workaroundIn the technology world, the term workaround means a temporary solution, prior to a fix being instituted. But in the real world, where systems are complex, workarounds are evolutionary and continual ñ they are ësimplyí the way the world works. Evolutionary adaptation is a process of making small changes to see what works, and to work around obstacles to the success of the species. Bacteria and viruses are especially good at this, and despite our attempts to ‘protect’ ourselves by soaking our world with toxic chemicals, these remarkable creatures keep learning and evolving to stay one step ahead of us. Products that ìkill 99% of all germsî notwithstanding, the total biomass of bacteria on this planet exceeds the total biomass of humanity. Cancers, alas, are similarly adaptable.

Humans, too, are excellent at finding workarounds. We learn what works by performing multiple experiments, and when we find something that works, we adopt it. The failures we document, at least in our memories, and resolve not to repeat them.

If youíve ever conducted cultural anthropology in organizations youíve worked with, youíve probably observed the lengths people will go to to do their jobs the best way possible despite the obstacles in their path. Those obstacles can be physical (groups far apart that need to work together), or cultural (how to tell the boss that everything is screwed up without falling victim to the ëshoot the messengerí syndrome). Or they may be a consequence of the diseconomies of size (bureaucracy increases by the square of the number of staff members). Or they may be imposed, perhaps with the best intentions, by hierarchical managers. Whatever the cause, the workers always seem to find workarounds that allow them to do their job as effectively as possible, despite the obstacles, and sometimes at the risk of violating policies, orders or accepted practices.

The same thing applies in society at large: Traffic flows in uncontrolled intersections tend in most situations to be faster and more effective than those with stoplights, no matter how well synchronized. We ‘work around’ accidents, sick children, dysfunctional marriages, and the loss of loved ones, without an instruction manual, and manage, for the most part, to cope pretty well through it all. We live in a world with millions of laws and regulations, but the reality is that most of them are largely unenforced and probably unenforceable, so we mostly ëtake the law into our own handsí and do what we must to compensate and adapt.

And then, as I keep saying (call it Pollardís Law), after we do what we must, then we do whatís easy, and then we do whatís fun. In our terrible modern world, there is no time for anything else: If it isnít (yet) a must, and isnít easy or fun, it simply wonít get done. Thatís why, for the most part, Getting Things Done-style time management systems that try to defy Pollardís Law are doomed to fail, and why the only hope for procrastinators is learning to say no to the urgent but (ultimately) unimportant tasks that consume most of our time: By refusing to do them, we take them off the ëmustí list and make room for more of the ëeasyí and ëfuní list items. Or, at least, we manage to get through the rest of the ëmustí list without burning ourselves out.

Our workarounds are designed primarily to allow us to comply with the items on our ëmustí list without becoming completely dysfunctional. But what if, instead of, or in addition to, workarounds for compliance, we were to develop some subversive workarounds that would allow us to do some really important things that would otherwise never get done (important things like ending global warming, ending world poverty, you know, saving the world and stuff), by making those things easier or more fun to do? That is, instead of trying to make them ëmustsí for politicians (which is hopeless, since we all know what the real ëmustsí are for politicians, and who they serve).

A natural enterprise is a type of workaround. At some point in our life, many of us reach the stage at which working as a wage slave for a dysfunctional large and rapacious organization becomes, for one of a variety of reasons (stress, disgust) intolerable. We ëmustí do something else, something more human, more responsible. A few drop out and become hermits or revolutionaries or suicides, but for most we look for a workaround ñ the least amount of change that meets the requirement.

Initially, then, we look for an established organization that needs our gift and/or passion and appears tolerable to work for. If that doesnít pan out, we may be prepared to compromise and do something we donít really love, or arenít particularly talented at, as long as itís for an organization that seems to have its heart in the right place, and/or co-workers we like. Failing that, we may try to find the easiest way to entrepreneurship ñ usually a sole proprietorship with minimal costs and risks, or starting a business in a tried and true industry using the processes that are the fastest ñ buying your way into an established market.

That usually fails (for all the reasons my many natural enterprise articles explain), so then we reach a crossroads of either (a) doing our homework and investing the time and energy to establish a truly natural enterprise, or (b) giving up and getting seduced back into the corporatist world with a shrug that ìit really wasnít that badî or ìtried the alternatives and none of them workedî. The decision on which of (a) or (b) we will pursue is not a decision at all ñ it is foreordained based on our perception of what we ëmustí do, what is easy and what is fun. My starry-eyed ambition is to convince people that natural entrepreneurship is both easier and more fun than they might think, but thereís really no point talking with them until theyíve decided on their own terms they ëmustí give it a try.

An intentional community likewise is a type of workaround. We will try it only if and when we ëmustí find another way of living in community ñ when living as a nuclear family in an anonymous, transient builder-designed (for their benefit, not yours) ëcommunityí where no one knows or trusts anyone else becomes simply intolerable. In these circumstances we will probably look to blame our family first, for not being everything we need, and most will try serial monogamy before realizing that that is not the problem. Then, we will look for an intentional community that is already established and looking for new members. Only when that fails will we consider looking for partners and establishing our own. We will only do it when we must, when the thought of any other alternative is unbearable. And it wonít be easy, so it had better be fun.

I could go on and explain that networks for peer-to-peer connectivity, co-organization, co-operation and co-development are also workarounds, but you get the idea.

So how could we ëfomentí change by making such workarounds easier and more fun? And can we also foment dissatisfaction so that an ìIíd like to do this some dayî becomes an ìI must do this now

I think the answer to the first question is yes, and thatís why Iím so hot on building ëworking modelsí and discovering and telling stories of success at creating natural enterprises, intentional communities and (to stretch the meaning of the term a bit) ëpeer productioní networks. Nothing succeeds like success, and working models show itís easier than most might think, while success stories show itís more fun than most might dare believe.

Iím not so sure about the second question. Iíve said before that while my genius (where my gift and passion overlap) is imagining possibilities, my purpose (how Iím destined to apply that genius) is fomenting dissatisfaction. Iíve done a lot of that on this blog, but Iíd argue that the people who Iíve pushed closer to The Edge through my writing were already ready, and just waiting for a nudge. I havenít changed minds, just tapped into a dissatisfaction that was already there. And to the extent I canít (yet) proffer working models to give productive, easy, joyful vent to that dissatisfaction, I may be doing no good at all. Some of my readers have said, in fact, that I should suspend blogging until I have (co-)developed (or at least connected with) successful working models that those who I can get to acknowledge the ëmustí can immediately apply and adapt easily and joyfully. One wrote to me: ìWe like reading How to Save the World, but would appreciate more ëhowí, more instruction and less urgingî.

The thing about workarounds, though, is that theyíre adaptive in a specific context ñ no bacteria send a message out to other bacteria saying ìhereís the template for working around the latest toxic human chemicalî. Workarounds may be co-developed by a small group, but theyíre personal, suited to a very specific situation. So perhaps what is needed, more than workaround databases and additional ìhowî instructions, is more capacity for workarounds in general, some redevelopment of our latent ability to adapt instead of waiting to be told what to do. This is the essence of my Let-Self-Change philosophy.

Is there a general ëmethodologyí for discovering and instituting workarounds? If there is, I suspect it would be something like this:

  1. Observe and understand the current state ñ why things are the way they are, and how they got that way. Get other perspectives if you can.
  2. Articulate why the current state is intolerable ñ why the cost of not changing is so high that change is a ëmustí. If you canít do this, stop there.
  3. Identify the alternative workarounds, and which and how many of them might be easily tried (multiple experiments), before deciding what the ëbestí workaround is. Do this collectively with others who appreciate the need for change and understand the current state.
  4. Try as many of the simplest alternatives as possible. Come to a consensus on which ones work best. If theyíre unsatisfactory, try less simple alternatives.
  5. If the alternatives you plan to institute will affect people you care about, tell them what youíre going to do.
  6. Usually, though not always, it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission for workarounds. Use your discretion in this.
  7. Make the changes. Help others understand and make them, too.
  8. If (as often happens) the changes encounter additional obstacles, find workarounds for them, too (back to step 1).
  9. Donít be stubborn, unduly idealistic, or too wedded to your initial ideas, but also donít give up at the first sign of resistance. In a word, be adaptable. Do what works ñ which might not be what you thought at first would work.
  10. If you get bogged down in the process, just begin. Sometimes intentionality alone can start, and accomplish, remarkable things. And you always learn more about the real problem once you startexploring and trying solutions.

And finally, if the changes you have decided upon are all things other people have to do, and nothing you have to do (i.e. no Let-Self-Change), then acknowledge that the chance of this actually happening is zero.

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2 Responses to Workarounds

  1. Ben Royal says:

    Interesting how closely your methodology for discovering workarounds comes to the kaizen method of continuous improvement and elements of lean manufacturing.Have you done any reading about kaizen?

  2. Musclemouth says:

    Dave, this is my second comment to your blog. This entry struck me as a sort of self-help guide for the intellectually obsessed, a.k.a. conscientiously paralyzed. I could simplify your entry to the point of Nikeism (“Just Do It”), but simple answers, though often wise, rarely satisfy those with more analytical tendencies.This brings me back to an old theory of mine, i.e. “Humans are too smart for their own good.” Myself being one of those humans. When simple acts are quite obviously the answer, the developed and curious mind expands to analyze all permuatations of said acts. Thus slowing us down. But, due to the inescapable fact that so many of us are pre-destined to “over-analyze” (I hate that phrase), we must cater to it. Perhaps “1. We do what we must, 2. We do what is easy, 3. We do what is fun” should be nested within “4. We do what seems justified” for over-analysts like me.Great writing, and quite motivational as well. Thanks for keeping this blog.

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