In the ever-evolving world of nonprofit organizations, leaders constantly face complex challenges that demand innovative solutions. Recently, I had the privilege of hosting Paulo Savaget on The Business of Giving podcast and author of ‘The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems.’ Our conversation opened doors to the intriguing realm of workarounds—an unconventional approach to problem-solving that holds transformative potential for nonprofit leaders. With his wealth of knowledge and experience as an associate professor at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, Savaget shed light on the power of workarounds in driving innovation within nonprofit organizations.


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

The Frustration that Ignited Innovation
Paulo Savaget’s journey into the world of workarounds was sparked by his frustration with the repetitive nature of sustainability consultancy reports. He noticed that his recommendations often revolved around generic strategies like coordination, alignment, and cooperation, regardless of the diversity of organizations and their unique challenges. This repetition fueled his desire to explore alternative approaches that could break free from conventional thinking and provide fresh perspectives on complex problems faced by nonprofit leaders.

Finding Inspiration in Hackers’ Resourcefulness
In an unexpected turn of events, Savaget found inspiration in the resourcefulness of computer hackers. He marveled at their ability to effect rapid and resourceful change, often disrupting entire systems seemingly out of nowhere. Intrigued by their approach, Savaget delved into studying hackers, exploring the possibility of applying a similar mindset to expedite change in different contexts. Little did he know that this exploration would lead him to uncover the world of workarounds and their remarkable potential in driving innovation within nonprofit organizations.

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 offers a unique approach to problem-solving, encouraging nonprofit leaders to challenge the status quo and reimagine solutions.

Let’s explore some illuminating examples of these strategies that Savaget shared. One compelling instance 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, ensuring better overall health outcomes and making a significant impact in communities.

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, these women have created a workaround that ensures access to vital healthcare services, empowering women in need.

Roundabouts, as described by Savaget, disrupt normalized behaviors and challenge societal norms. An intriguing 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, contributing to a positive cultural shift.

While the snippet provided does not elaborate on the category of next best workarounds, it highlights the versatility of workarounds in repurposing or recombining available resources.

Harnessing the Power of Workarounds in Nonprofit Organizations
Implementing workarounds in nonprofit organizations is a transformative endeavor. Savaget emphasizes the importance of thorough analysis of the specific problem at hand, understanding available resources and constraints, and actively identifying opportunities for workarounds. Nonprofit leaders must embrace a mindset of exploration and innovation to uncover the vast array of possibilities that exist. Savaget affirms, “There are so many possibilities to work around, as long as we analyze the problem, try to understand the situation, the available resources, and the constraints. By doing so, we will likely identify many opportunities.”

Furthermore, Savaget underscores the need for a framework to determine the most suitable workaround for a given situation. Workarounds can be classified into the four categories mentioned earlier, depending on the specific circumstances and constraints involved. Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Savaget encourages nonprofit leaders to explore multiple workarounds using the framework as a guide, unlocking the full potential of this approach.

Embracing a Workaround-Friendly Culture
Creating a workaround-friendly culture within nonprofit organizations presents its own set of challenges. Savaget acknowledges the need for constant reinforcement and ongoing conversations about workarounds. Nonprofit leaders play a vital role in fostering a culture that values and encourages innovative problem-solving. By cultivating an environment where employees feel empowered to challenge conventions and explore alternative solutions, organizations can increase the likelihood of workarounds being actively used by all members, thereby unlocking their full potential and driving innovation.

Looking Ahead: Workarounds in Complex, High-Stakes Situations
As nonprofit organizations navigate a future filled with complex and high-stakes situations, workarounds will play a pivotal role in addressing the evolving problems they face. Savaget underscores their adaptability and effectiveness, particularly in the context of sustainability—an area of critical importance for many nonprofits. He states, “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.”

Looking to the future, Savaget’s research aims to explore complexity, interventions for sustainability, entrepreneurship, innovation, and systems change. He expresses a strong interest in marginalized approaches like workarounds and their potential impact on individuals’ lives and the world.

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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