How Stuff Gets Done

workaroundSomething remarkable has happened in the workplace in the forty years since I first entered it. Virtually every job in now unique, and no one knows everything about anyone’s job, or how to do it well, except the person who’s doing it. The only exceptions ñ a declining number of assembly line manufacturing jobs, and a depressing number of telemarketing and other jobs ñ are ripe for automation.

So for most of us, the workday involves deciding (constantly) what to do next and how to do it. This is true even for people in ‘responsive’ jobs like customer service.

A number of factors come into play in deciding what to do and how to do it. There may be standard procedures, policies or regulations that constrain our freedom to decide. There may be situations where we know what the boss would want our decision to be. We may not have the authorization or capability to do what we think would be the best decision. There may be obstacles to doing what we think is right.

So what do we do? We weigh the consequences of doing what we think is best, versus what is easiest. When there’s no conflict between them, the decision is simple. When there is, such as when a customer wants us to x (the best action) but we know the boss would want us to do y (the easiest action), we will have to make a number of judgements. If the boss is unlikely to find out, or if it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission, we’re likely to do x, especially if the customer is aggressive and is making it harder to do y. If we don’t care that much about taking the best action (e.g. if we’re disgruntled or bored in our job, or if the customer is an asshole or a complete idiot who won’t appreciate what we do anyway), or if x is illegal, then we’ll probably do y.

And then there are the situations when we want to do x, but we’re blocked from doing it because it violates policy or because we don’t have (and can’t easily get) the authorization or capability (skill or resources) to do it. In these cases we improvise, using workarounds. If possible, we will find a way to do x, the right thing. We’ll find a way to get around the policy by justifying it as inapplicable or a special situation. We’ll find ‘hostages’ who will agree with us that x is clearly the right thing to do despite the policy, or who we can quote to get authorization we otherwise would not get easily. We’ll ‘borrow’ the skills or resources from someone who does have them, and chalk up a tacit IOU to be repaid later. We’ll find a way. After all, we know our job best, and so what is right is what we will do whenever possible, even if it isn’t easy, and often even if it’s forbidden. That’s how stuff gets done.

Just thinking about all my years of work in a dozen different positions, I would hazard a guess that the normal checks and constraints and tensions in any business are such that more than 50% of the time we need to make a decision between what is right and what is easiest. And I would hazard a guess that in 90% of those cases we resolve the conflict in favour of what is right. Even if you’re a CEO, your situation is the same ñ your ‘boss’ is the board of directors or the bank or the corporate lawyer or the insurance company telling you not to do what’s best for the customer or the employees ñ and like the rest of us CEOs will go to the wall (but not over it) to do what’s right. I believe it’s human nature.

That means that we spend much of our work lives (and a stressful part at that) making difficult decisions and finding workarounds to do what’s best. That’s why organizations that devolve a huge amount of authority and responsibility to the front line usually find productivity, performance and work satisfaction go up. They’re reducing the number of conflicts and the need for workarounds. And in all but at most 5% of cases (50% x (100%-90%)) the outcome will be the same whether they’re hands-off or micro-managing. One could even argue that that 5% is a modest investment in ‘wrong’ decisions that produces a huge return in learning from those mistakes.

When Bush wanted to reward the megapolluters for their generous campaign donations, he didn’t confront Congress to abolish environmental laws (OK he did a bit, but most of the laws remains on the books) ñ he simply told the EPA and the other government agencies to stop enforcing the law. He found a way to make it relatively easy to do what to him was ‘right’, by using a convenient workaround.

Watch how traffic manages itself when stoplights go out ñ people work around it much more effectively themselves than when an officer shows up and tries to regulate the chaos.

Workarounds are probably the most prevalent and effective form of innovation in most organizations, and perhaps in our world.

So what if we added ‘finding effective workarounds’ to our Save the World toolkit? As a means of making a better world easier, it is hard to imagine a more natural solution than workarounds. Just as squirrels find a way to defeat the baffles we set up to keep them out of bird feeders, shouldn’t we be able to find a way to defeat the organizations, people, processes and technologies that are ruining our planet, and creating the social and environmental problems that bedevil us?

Or do we have a problem with scale here? Workarounds are fine when they’re within our sphere of control, but what happens when the problems we’re trying to work around are bigger than all of us?

Pick an example: Global warming. In our part of the word, coal-fired power plants are the worst polluters. What’s easy is to shrug off the fact that the government that owns many of them has tried to switch to renewable energy but concluded they still need these plants. What’s right (for our health, and that of our world) is to get them shut down.What’s the workaround that will enable that to happen?

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1 Response to How Stuff Gets Done

  1. lugon says:

    Daniel Quinn would say the workaround is to leave the pyramid behind, and help others. Solve OUR problem, as people. Or, as a fluwikian said, build our own People Continuity Plan (as oposed to Business Continuity Plan). Easier said than done, or maybe not. Dunno.

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