The following is a conversation between Paulo Savaget, Author of The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: For ages, global corporations have been lecturing small organizations and not-for-profits on how to get things done. As it turns out, it may have been better if it was the other way around. Many small organizations, such as those dedicated to social action, have made an art form out of subverting the status quo and prove themselves adept at achieving massive wins with minimal resources.

This phenomenon is captured in a wonderful new book titled, The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems, and here to discuss it with us is its author, an associate professor at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, Dr. Paulo Savaget.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Paulo. 

Paulo Savaget, Author of The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems

Paulo: Thank you very much, Denver, for inviting me. 

Denver: How do you define workarounds, and what distinguishes them from other problem-solving approaches? 

Paulo: A workaround is a very unconventional way of addressing problems. It defies the conventions on how a problem is meant to be addressed, and also who is supposed to be addressing those problems in the first place.

And a workaround focuses on practicality, immediacy of results, and it normally challenges the most conventions that we sometimes get numb to. As changemakers or people working at organizations, we get numb to different ways of addressing problems because we face these problems so constantly that we ignore that there are many other ways of potentially addressing them. 

“These hackers seemed to make change so quickly and resourcefully. Out of the blue, they sometimes disrupted an entire system. And then I started studying hackers with the assumption that perhaps, we could use a similar approach to expedite change in a different system.”

Denver: But one of the things I was always curious about is what drew you to this concept in the first place? I mean, this is not something we automatically gravitate to. And then, how did you go about researching these workarounds? 

Paulo: I had worked for many years as a consultant on sustainability, as an entrepreneur as well, trying to focus also on sustainable innovations, and I got a little bit frustrated, especially as a consultant, that my reports were getting very similar regardless of whom I was giving advice to.

So, let’s say I worked with traditional populations in the Amazon and also with very large organizations based in high-end offices, and sometimes my reports were similar despite these different contacts. I recommended the things like: more coordination, more alignment, more cooperation– things that are not wrong. 

I never say that these are negative or we shouldn’t necessarily be pursuing these strategies, but I realized that I was being a bit generic, and I started getting curious about other ways of approaching complex problems and situations where there’s no single answer. 

Then I got curious about computer hackers, because even though I didn’t know much about hacking or even about coding, these hackers seemed to make change so quickly and resourcefully. Out of the blue, they sometimes disrupted an entire system. And then I started studying hackers with the assumption that perhaps, we could use a similar approach to expedite change in a different system. 

So, let’s say, instead of hacking computational systems, can we hack education? Can we hack healthcare? Climate change? And then after I worked with computer hackers, I realized that at the very core of the hacker approach is that they work around.

One of the analogies that I sometimes use is of the Trojan Horse. It’s one of the most notorious computer hacks, and it’s named after the Greek myth, meaning that you don’t have to necessarily break into the walls of a town to find a way in. You may find very ingenious, unconventional ways of letting yourself in.

When I realized that– I also worked with computer hackers– another pivotal finding was that they already referred to many organizations and entrepreneurs that were not working with computational systems that were hacky. They would say like, “You can hack any system; it doesn’t have to be computational.” Then I realized that the assumption that I started with– that I wanted to learn from hackers to apply in other systems… there were already organizations doing that even though I didn’t know about them. And some computer hackers started pointing me to good directions. They would say, “This organization is hacking the financial sector; this organization is hacking healthcare or gender inequality.” And then I started going and interviewing and working with some of these organizations to learn from them, and these are the organizations that I call “scrappy.” 

Denver: I like scrappy. 

Anyway, what is the hacker’s mindset, and because it is a mindset: Can you develop it, or is it essentially innate?

Paulo: You can definitely develop a hacker mindset, and there are many traits to this mindset. One of them is that they embrace complexity; they don’t try to tame complexity. They don’t try to organize and get a full picture of whichever system they’re working on. They understand that they will never get a full picture because these situations can be very complex, but they find ways of muddling through, finding opportunities that allow them to constantly explore new things and build on their previous insights to find all the new things.

That’s one of the key insights of the hacker mindset, but there are other ones as well. 

They normally have an attitude that is prone to define conventions, authorities, as well as the case of many computer hackers, but of many other ones, they don’t necessarily think that a problem needs to be solved by a central authority. They think that they can take a stance and they can act on these problems as well, even if it’s a very complex, challenging problem that people normally think that the government should be the one responsible for addressing. And they also enjoy the processes a lot.

It’s interesting to work with hackers because they get so much joy from the process. They’re not only focused on an end goal. Sometimes, they don’t even know the end goal from the beginning, but they’re interested in hacking for the joy of playing. 

Denver: It’s a game, it’s pleasurable.

Well, you have identified four major categories of problem solving in this regard, and they’re called the piggybacks, the loopholes, the roundabouts, and the next best, and we’re going to walk through each one of them, if it’s okay with you.

Why don’t we start with the “piggyback strategy.” 

Paulo: Sure. The piggyback leverages different pairings that are very often unconventional or different relationships. Let me give you an example. One of the organizations that I worked with, that I use very often as a case… I spent time with them in Zambia trying to understand how they worked around very systemic bottlenecks that prevent medicines from being found in remote regions in Zambia.

If you are, for example, the World Health Organization, US Aid, Gates Foundation, you will try to address that problem normally by tackling the obstacles preventing medicines from being found. So, let’s say you diagnose what is preventing…the key obstacles… are lack of infrastructure, or poor logistic systems, or unavailability, or lack of pharmaceutical companies locally. You’re going to try to tackle them; you’re going to try to build these pharma companies or give incentives for the ones that already exist to start producing these medicines. Or you’re going to try to improve roads or build hospital facilities, right? 

These things that are very costly, because bottlenecks in complex systems are there for a reason. They’re complex; they’re tough to address. And the workaround that this organization came up with, that worked around this lack of infrastructure, this very poor infrastructure, was that they started piggybacking on Coca-Cola’s distribution channels to make diarrhea treatment available in remote regions.

And diarrhea is the second biggest killer of children under the age of five in many regions in Africa, and it’s a medicine that is over the counter; it doesn’t require refrigeration; it’s extremely cheap. Even people in extreme poverty could potentially afford this medicine. So, by fitting medicines between bottles in a crate of Coca-Cola, they piggybacked on what was already there because these Coca-Cola bottles are found everywhere.

Denver: And they’re the greatest distribution system in the world, yes. 

Paulo: Exactly, and it’s brilliant, right? We normally think that we have to address healthcare problems by only approaching through the healthcare frame and conventional approaches, but you can piggyback on fast moving consumer goods, an entirely new system, different system from healthcare. And to address the problem in healthcare, there are many successes out there that we can piggyback on. We don’t actually have to recreate parallel systems. 

Denver: That’s a great example, and it is true. We try to solve so many of our problems straight on, and the only way you can solve them often is from the side, from going through the ground underneath or whatever, but we tend to look at it… and just with a straight linear focus to try to tackle it.

Another great example you cite in the book is food fortification. Talk briefly about that. 

Paulo: Exactly. It’s a piggyback workaround that has been implemented by most countries in the world and many international organizations as well.

Many of the micronutrient deficiencies that people face, say iron deficiency being super prevalent in many countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia as well, or folic acids that compromise especially pregnant women. There are many micronutrient deficiencies that impact a lot of people, but the problem is that if you try to customize solutions and confront the obstacles preventing people from taking or having these micronutrients.

Imagine, you have to understand people’s biological systems. Every person processes things differently. They have diets that you’d have to change, one by one. It’s really difficult… and even their exact ingredients, right? Because in South Asia, for example, they typically don’t eat a lot of foods that are rich in iron. Imagine trying to convince 1 billion people in India to change their diets.

Denver: One at a time.

Paulo: Yeah, one at a time. I’m not saying that these efforts are not valuable. I’m just saying that they take a very long time and might be super costly. So, what many organizations and governments have done is that they piggyback on products, the staples, that are already eaten by these populations.

So, let’s say, folic acid and many other micronutrients that have been piggybacking, for example, on wheat, like wheat flour, a staple that a lot of people already consume. Why can’t we just add and fortify with the micronutrients that people don’t have? That’s a piggyback that has been used since the early 20th century in the United States preventing goiter and piggybacking salt, and then since then expanded to cover a wide range of micronutrients and also a geographical coverage. 

Denver: I think the original piggyback was probably done by mothers who stuck aspirin in our applesauce when we were little babies, you know what I mean?

Paulo: Also that, yes, they put it in the smoothie that the child loves. 

Denver: Absolutely. I remember she’d crush it up and stick it in there. I knew.  I was never the wiser, but I felt better.

So, the second workaround is “loopholes.” Now, loopholes have a bad connotation because we always think about avoiding taxes, but you can really capitalize on the ambiguity and exploit some of these rules. Tell us a little bit about how that works. 

Paulo: Sure, the loophole. So, if the piggyback is about relationships, roughly speaking, the loophole is about rules. It’s about either leveraging the ambiguity of rules or finding a different set of rules that may work, but might not be the most conventional in that specific setting.

So, let me give an example of an organization that I interviewed in the Netherlands. It’s a group of feminist women, who think that women should get  abortion service on demand. If they want to get an abortion, they should be allowed to, and most legislations around the world do not allow women to get these services.

So, they realize that what prevents women from getting these services and especially like safe services and legal, is the legislation where they are. So, they took a boat from the Netherlands, a country that is pro-choice, and they sail to places where abortion is illegal. So, let’s say they go to Poland, and those who want to get an abortion service and are not allowed by the local legislation can go on board, and they sail to international waters, which is about half an hour from the coastline; it’s not that far. 

And in international waters, the legislation that applies is the one of the flag of the boat, and because it’s the Dutch flag, it means that it’s the Dutch legislation, which is pro-choice. So, they can offer safe and legal abortion services to women residing in countries where abortions are illegal, and since then they have used many other loopholes to provide abortion services. But that’s one of the essences, one of the approaches:  They are using legislation from the Netherlands for the benefit of women in many other countries around the world by taking them to international waters and making the Dutch legislation apply to them as well. 

Denver: Brilliant. That’s a great example. Now, when I need to buy time, “roundabouts” is the workaround I’m going to want to use. Tell us about that.

Paulo: Exactly. Roundabout is about self-reinforcing behaviors and disrupting them. Self-reinforcing behaviors… also in systems thinking, we describe as positive feedback loops… consist of these things where the input turns into an output and it becomes self-reinforcing, normalized.

I normally give a very trivial example of my older brother and me when we were young: we used to fight a lot. 

Denver: Really? 

Paulo: Yeah, a lot. He was older than me, so I didn’t really have much of a chance in this fight, but let’s say that he would flick me and then I would slap him. He would punch me, I would choke him, and suddenly things spiraled out of control.

Denver: I have a brother. I know what you’re talking about. 

Paulo: I think it resonates with many of us, right? And it’s this idea that things can spiral out of control, or they can become normalized to the point that people think that something is inevitable. Think of a landslide. A small rock knocks out a bigger rock, then a bigger rock, and then suddenly, it’s a landslide or a snowball. That’s the idea of self-reinforcing behavior, and these are very present in our lives as well. 

So think of situations, that something that you consider unfair becomes very normalized… or something that is undesirable, like a social behavior that you dislike but you think, “Oh, it’s very difficult to tackle this because it’s so embedded into this culture.” 

One of the small examples that I share in the book is of this, when I was walking in India. 

Denver: Oh yeah, I love this example. 

Paulo: It’s a great example, right? Because it’s a small, but very ingenious example, and it’s also the only one whose authorship I don’t know because it became so disseminated, but when I was walking in urban areas in India, and especially in Delhi, you could clearly see that some walls were very, very dirty because men urinate on these walls, and they spit… and it’s a very common practice– public urination among men.

It’s a very gendered practice as well because women normally don’t urinate in public spaces in urban regions, but men do. And most people trying to tackle this problem will say, “You got to build public facilities.” And of course, this may help, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem even in the places where they try to do that because as I said, it’s not only the lack of facilities; it’s also gendered. Men think that they can urinate on these walls, and it’s very normalized. When I spoke to the locals, they said, “Ah, it’s impossible! People will always do that.” It’s that kind of behavior that is very difficult to challenge. And once men urinate on walls, then people think that it’s normal. It becomes even more normalized, and it creates this feeling that something is inevitable. 

So, the workaround that these wall owners identified and started implementing was that they used tiles of Hindu gods and put them on walls, and then men, in a country where the majority of the population is Hindu, will never urinate on a god because that’s blasphemy; that’s heresy. So, they don’t urinate on these walls, and they might go somewhere else where there’s no deity frowning on the urination habits. So by putting these tiles up with their gods, they diverted the stream, so to speak, to another wall, right?

Denver: Absolutely, and saved a boatload of money in the process. You know, when I was reading this, Paolo, I was thinking of the slow elevator problem. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about it, but there was this building that had slow elevators. They only had two elevators, and all the tenants were complaining. And they brought somebody in to see what it was going to cost to fix them and get them faster; it was an absolute fortune. 

Then they came up with their workaround, and they realized the problem wasn’t really how slow the elevators were. It was that people didn’t like to wait for the elevator. So they put up a mirror in every lobby, so people, when they had to wait, were looking at the most fascinating thing in the entire world– themselves! And the problem went away. So, very much the same concept as you’ve come out with.

And then finally, if you’re going to repurpose or recombine some available resources, then you’re talking about the “next best workaround.” Tell us about that one. 

Paulo: The next best is, exactly as you said, is about resources, and it’s either repurposing or assembling resources in unconventional ways.

So, for example, one of the organizations that I studied started with an entrepreneur that was in Borneo in a rainforest and realized that tackling deforestation and illegal logging is very tough, especially in low-income countries that do not have the resources to monitor these very vast regions. Because rainforests can be huge, and these countries don’t necessarily have the resources to patrol the entire area. And when you use satellites for that, you don’t necessarily catch illegal logging, the act. It takes time to understand and get a picture of what is happening and then to try to tackle that, but you don’t necessarily prevent the illegal logging from happening in a region. 

So, what this person did that was ingenious, he realized that there were many mobile phones that were being discarded. Now, more people in the world have access to mobile phones than toilets.

Mobile phones are that accessible, and we are constantly discarding them to buy new models. So, he took these discarded mobile phones and connected them to the canopies of some trees. So, let’s say that he puts them high up so they can be charged with solar energy, with the solar panels, and these phones are listening to the sounds of the forest.

So, let’s say, there’s the sound of a bird, rain, and so on. The phone has an algorithm that distinguishes these sounds of the forest from the sounds of chainsaws. And when it diagnoses, it identifies the sound of chainsaw; the phone sends a signal to the patrols who know exactly where the illegal logging is happening because these mobile phones are distributed in order to maximize coverage. And then they know which mobile phones send the signal, and they know the region where illegal logging is happening so they can more effectively and efficiently resourcefully monitor these vast areas.

Brilliant use for a resource that was literally going to waste, and using solar energy that is widely available in rainforests.

“There’s so many possibilities to work around so long as we analyze the problem, we try to understand the situation– what is available to us, the resources, what constraints or not in a situation; we will likely identify many opportunities.” 

Denver: Brilliant is the word; you used it. I can’t agree with you more. 

Paulo, how do you determine which workaround to use, when? Is there like a framework that helps you determine what might be the best one to apply right now?

Paulo: There is. One of the chapters of my book, I tried to walk the reader through, a sort of ideation exercise, that I show the different building blocks of workarounds, the essence of boiling down to some key attributes to help the reader look at the respective circumstances, and identify workarounds that may suit them best.

Roughly speaking, the next best is about resources; loopholes is about rules, piggybacking about relationships; and roundabout about self-reinforcing behaviors. So, it really depends on the circumstances in which we are seeing ourselves. 

But if you feel very constrained by a behavior that feels inevitable, that it’s so difficult to change, it’s probably a good setting for us to round about. 

If there’s a rule that is very constraining, a legislation or even a customary rule, you might be looking to a loophole. 

If you can build across systems or find different pairings of different relationships, then you go to a piggyback. 

But I provide these core attributes in some orders that help the reader identify some different possibilities.

And one of the things that I find fascinating when I run workshops using this framework is that facing the same problem, people can come up with multiple workarounds using the four workarounds sometimes. It’s not that there’s only one workaround that will work in a circumstance, there might be one that might be easier to find more accessible. But there’s so many possibilities to work around so long as we analyze the problem– we try to understand the situation, what is available to us, the resources, what constraints or not in a situation; we will likely identify many opportunities. 

“There’s also the possibility of working around AI or working around machine learning, and I think that these ones might be rare, but it would be also interesting to see how people are trying to circumvent usage of AI or machine learning.”

Denver: Cool. What is the impact, I guess, of technology and machine learning and AI on workarounds?

Paulo: There are many possibilities to work around using AI and machine learning. I share some cases, especially in the next best, demonstrating possibilities to use AI. For example, to work around lack of infrastructure, for monitoring public expenses– so used in cases of possible corruption or identifying suspicious public expenses.

For example, even the case that I mentioned of the mobile phone used an AI to distinguish the sound of the forest from the sound of chainsaws. I would say that AI opens a realm of possibilities across fields, right across so many circumstances. And it opens many possibilities to identify different ways of connecting resources or applying resources unconventionally… so definitely very good for next best workarounds.

But I think that there’s also the possibility of working around AI or working around machine learning, and I think that these ones might be rare, but it would be also interesting to see how people are trying to circumvent usage of AI or machine learning.

Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about the culture of workarounds, because often when people look at a book like yours, which is just a fantastic book, they absorb it. They say, “Yeah, that’s right for my organization.” They might even talk to some members of the senior team, but the activation aspect of it never really takes off the way it should.

And if it does, often a month later, they’re back to doing the things the way they used to be doing those things. Maybe, you have an example, or maybe you have some advice. How do you really embed this into the culture of an organization, so it’s actively being used by all the people who work there? 

Paulo: I also have a chapter that describes how workarounds can be used in people’s organizations, and I would say that there are many possibilities of making an organization more workaround-friendly. 

These recommendations vary from strategy, to leadership, culture, and so on, but I would say that many of the readers when after finishing the book and many feedbacks that I’ve received, is that they start thinking differently, and they can try to embed that culture in their organizations by, for example: take the framework that I show how to come up with these ideas and run a workshop you can run yourself. 

You don’t need me to run a workshop and workarounds, or for example, you can try to show the benefits of these workarounds, or even pilot a workaround before going through the more formal decision-making systems in your organization. And I would say that sometimes, and I find this case is also fascinating, I’ve seen many stories of people who worked around their bosses, for example, in the organization. So, there are possibilities to work around with orders and also work around despite orders that we also see often. 

And, I would also emphasize that we all work around even if you haven’t yet noticed. After reading the book or listening to this podcast, you would notice that you probably worked around in multiple situations in your life.

But you probably don’t do that systematically, and you don’t exploit the full potential of workarounds, and workarounds can be very transformative so long as you start more systematically pursuing them to address complex problems. There are many possibilities to make big change as well.

Denver: Yeah, yeah. We do a lot of these things unconsciously; we never label them, but when it becomes conscious, then you can begin to pursue it intentionally, and you’ll be doing it a lot more often and a lot more effectively. 

Well, talking about trying to embed this in one’s person, you’re a teacher, at the Saïd Business School.

How do you teach workarounds to your class? 

Paulo: I normally run workshops and for multiple reasons, one is that I also learn from my students a lot. I learn cases. I learn how they think, how they use the framework, and I changed  my workshop a lot, thanks to the feedback that I got from them and the observations that I get from them. So, it’s also like, I sometimes run experiments with my students. I don’t tell them that they are my guinea pigs. 

Denver: Yeah, but they’re your lab, that’s for sure. 

Paulo: Yeah, definitely, my lab. I run multiple workaround sessions with them and sometimes, I give a more traditional lecture that I show the four workarounds and show how people can pursue them in their lives, but without having time to run a workshop. And for workshops, sometimes I bring a real-world case. I invite someone who has a complex problem, and then we come up with ideas and try to create these workarounds.

And sometimes, I create a more fictional case that connects directly to the module that they have been learning. So, there are many tricks. 

Denver: Many, many tricks. Not to put you on the spot, but do you have an example of a workaround that you use in your personal life? 

Paulo: Oh, I use so many workarounds. Almost daily I use workarounds. One that was very transformative for me was that when I applied for my PhD. I was already interested in studying computer hacking, and I had worked for many years as a consultant and so on, but I was based in Brazil. I had degrees from Brazilian universities and from a university in the UK, but I knew that to apply for a position at Cambridge and also get a scholarship, it would be tough to get selected with a proposal on hacking because hacking could be risky. And most people thought of hacking as something like selling people’s credit cards, which is not accurate, but I was writing a proposal that would be evaluated along with many others that will be…

Denver: That’s right. And then if you follow up with loopholes, right after hacking, they’re going to say, “We don’t want this guy.” 

Paulo: Exactly, Yeah, “He’s not going to go through the risk assessment from the university.” Right? So there, I knew that from the beginning. So, even though I knew I wanted to study hacking and how to hack sustainability, I realized that I would have better chances if I came up with a different proposal that was much more aligned with the kinds of research that people were already doing at the university. 

So, I came up with a research proposal that was very focused on long-term transitions, alignment of many, many actors, very different from what I de facto was interested in studying, but that got me through. I got selected. I got a scholarship. I went to Cambridge, and when I went there, I realized that I could do the research I wanted after engaging with my supervisor and working… that hacking could be a pilot for me. I didn’t have to go full on and study that. If it didn’t work, if I didn’t glean some interesting insights, I could go back to my other research and get my PhD still, right? But that was a workaround that was very transformative. It first got me my PhD, allowed me to get this position and fully-funded position, but also it’s, ultimately, one of the first workarounds that made me write this book, about workarounds. 

“Even though we all use workarounds, no one had studied and investigated how we can work around more systematically, and the possible impact of workarounds in our lives and in the world.”

Denver: Well, what’s your next workaround? Finally, what’s going to be the future of workarounds? Where do you think it’s going to be going from here? And where do you think your research is going to take you over the next 5 or 10 years?

Paulo: I think workarounds are critical in the ways we approach complex situations, situations that are high stakes. Information is limited; you don’t have a lot of time to make a decision. Workarounds are amazing, those circumstances, including for large organizations; they’re not only for scrappy. I learned from scrappy organizations, but I show how these large organizations can learn from them as well and use workarounds for their benefit to create new business models, innovations, technologies, and so on.

So, workarounds are very critical in these complex situations, and when we talk about sustainability, which is my core area of interest, I believe that we will face many complex problems that cannot be fully solved because they are very complex, and the problems also change over time. 

So, climate change, poverty, these problems also evolve. It’s not only the solutions that evolve, the problems are also evolving; we have to adapt. And workarounds are very adaptive. They’re effective ways of approaching these very complex problems. And in terms of my future research and my current research as well, I’m very interested in learning about complexity, how we can best intervene in complex situations to deliver on sustainability goals and ambitions. 

And I have many projects within that realm of entrepreneurship, innovation, systems thinking, systems change for sustainability, and I would say that my work also has a strong emphasis on approaches that are marginalized, that have been overlooked, like workarounds. Even though we all use workarounds, no one had studied and investigated how we can work around more systematically, and the possible impact of workarounds in our lives and in the world.

So, I’m very interested in, not only marginalized populations and organizations, like scrappy organizations that most people don’t necessarily study, but also marginalized approaches to tackling complex problems. 

Denver: Right, because they’ll be the mainstream ones about 10 or 15 years from now. You got to go looking there.

And I love what you say about complexity. Unfortunately, I think this world has become so black and white, and we try to simplify everything, but really the gold is in that gray. And like those hackers, unless you really take the time to embrace the gray and find out what makes the system work, you’re really not going to get a satisfactory conclusion.

Well, this is a wonderful book. A lot of original thinking, which I think will help both individuals and organizations. The title, again, is The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems. 

Thanks so much for being here today, Paulo. It was a real delight to have you on the program.

Paulo: Thank you very much, Denver. This was an excellent conversation.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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