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.


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

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, organizations are constantly seeking innovative solutions to tackle complex problems. In my conversation with Paulo Savaget, author of ‘The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems,’ we explored the intriguing world of workarounds—a revolutionary approach to problem-solving. As an associate professor at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, Savaget brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, shedding light on the transformative potential of workarounds.

The Frustration that Ignited Innovation

Savaget’s journey into the world of workarounds was sparked by his frustration with the repetitive nature of his sustainability consultancy reports. Despite the diversity of organizations and their unique challenges, he noticed that his recommendations often converged around generic strategies such as coordination, alignment, and cooperation. This sense of repetition propelled him to explore alternative approaches that could break free from the confines of conventionality.

Finding Inspiration in Hackers’ Resourcefulness

In an unexpected turn of events, Savaget found inspiration in the resourcefulness of computer hackers. These individuals possessed a remarkable ability to effect rapid and transformative change, often disrupting entire systems seemingly out of nowhere. Savaget was captivated by their approach and started studying hackers, exploring the possibility of applying a similar mindset to expedite change in different contexts.

The Four Strategies: Piggybacks, Loopholes, Roundabouts, and Next Bests

Drawing upon the hacker mindset of embracing complexity, defying conventions, and enjoying the process, Savaget introduced four major categories of workaround strategies: piggybacks, loopholes, roundabouts, and next bests. Each category represents a unique approach to problem-solving that deviates from the conventional path, offering organizations a new lens through which to view their challenges.

One illuminating example Savaget shared is the use of piggybacks to combat micronutrient deficiencies worldwide. By piggybacking on staple products already consumed by populations, organizations and governments can fortify these items with essential nutrients, such as folic acid in wheat flour, significantly improving overall health outcomes.

Loopholes, another category of workarounds, enable innovative solutions even when faced with legal restrictions. Savaget highlighted the inspiring case of feminist women in the Netherlands who use a boat flying the Dutch flag, where abortions are legal, to provide safe abortion services to women in countries where the procedure is illegal. By capitalizing on legal differences, they create a workaround that ensures access to vital healthcare services.

Roundabouts, as Savaget described, disrupt normalized behaviors and challenge societal norms. A compelling example from India involves the installation of tiles featuring Hindu gods on walls to deter public urination by men. This creative approach not only addresses a hygiene issue but also encourages more socially acceptable practices.

Harnessing the Power of Workarounds in Organizations

Harnessing the power of workarounds in organizations is a transformative endeavor. Savaget emphasizes the importance of analyzing the specific problem, understanding available resources and constraints, and identifying opportunities for workarounds. A framework helps determine the most suitable workaround, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Organizations should explore multiple workarounds using the framework to navigate challenges with purpose and intentionality. Creating a workaround-friendly culture requires constant reinforcement and ongoing conversations, fostering a culture that values and encourages innovative problem-solving. This cultural shift is crucial to unlocking the full potential of workarounds and driving innovation within organizations.

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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