The Notorious “Workaround”

Apr 10, 2023

I’ve come to believe every company does it. Even the really good companies. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertently. I am talking about the notorious “workaround.”  In the name of progress, individuals and organizations engineer processes and systems that work around the employee, boss, founder, or team member who is too slow, too removed, too entrenched, too blind, too difficult, too immature, too arrogant, too old, too young, too idealistic, too bureaucratic, too stubborn, too light, too…

You know what I mean by a work around. Instead of the work naturally flowing to and through someone, it has to be redirected around someone to get it done. You are successful in spite of someone, not because of someone. 

Contrast that with how Simon Sinek talks about truly high performing teamsThe best teams are there for each other. Workarounds say that there's someone on the team they can't even figure out how to pull along.

Three Problems

Unfortunately, workarounds are only temporary solutions that tend to create bigger problems down the road.

  1. Workarounds ignore organizational dysfunction. They don’t fix, or even really acknowledge, the problematic piece in your organization’s machinery. They simply bypass it. The problem is still there, and guess what…it’s probably getting worse.
  2. Workarounds breed more workarounds. Every time you step outside of your ideal workflow, you encourage additional deviation. It’s like taking a whole new route to the airport because there is a single tricky left turn on your normal route. Sure, you avoid the turn, but what detours might the new route demand? Traffic? Construction? One-way streets? Workarounds breed more workarounds. Always.
  3. Workarounds create faulty organizational data. Not all data is equally useful. You cannot plan or project for the future based on data collected while utilizing workarounds. You haven’t proven up your real systems or processes, only your deviations of those things. 

8 Steps to Handling a Workaround

Fixing a workaround isn’t always easy. While your impulse may be to simply force people into a more efficient system—and out of a workaround—more care may be required. This is especially true if the workaround in question has become a part of your organization’s DNA.

Here are some tips to consider when correcting a workaround.

  1. Get first hand knowledge. Make sure you understand the problem and its components. Don’t operate from second-hand knowledge. Know what you want to change, how you want to change it, and why your change is the best course for your organization.
  2. Tighten your belt. You need to gather some mental and emotional resolve. When you try to change long-standing workarounds, you will meet resistance. There will be fierce headwind. The more entrenched the workaround, the greater the resistance will be. You are walking toward the barking dog (as a mentor of mine would say). Get ready.
  3. Write your script. Don’t wing it. Put your thinking on paper. Work through the objections ahead of time and prepare appropriate responses. Ask yourself the hard questions before others have the chance. Stay on issue, be specific, and steer clear of personal indictments.
  4. Do a fly by. Test-drive your proposed fix with a couple of trusted colleagues. Rehearse your language and arguments. Let them push back, and adjust your pitch accordingly. Listen and adjust.
  5. Pick the right place and the right time. Tough meetings often go better on certain days, at certain times, and in certain locations. It may not matter in your situation, but if it does, take the time to plan accordingly. If you don’t, your meeting may go more like this than you intended.
  6. Have the meeting. This might sound obvious, but you actually have to have the meeting…not another tangent meeting. Often leaders (especially people- pleasing leaders that avoid confrontation) don’t have the hard meeting. They schedule it and everyone shows up, but it’s actually another meeting that talks about everything BUT the topic. If you struggle to have productive meetings, check out this short blog from Harvard Business Review for some helpful tips.
  7. Stay on script. Don’t overtalk it. Don’t argue. Don’t lose your cool. Don’t follow every rabbit trail. State your case, and keep it simple.
  8. Ideas and plans don’t self-execute. Even the clear and needed ones need to be methodically implemented. Someone must lead the way and guide the effort. Someone must measure progress against the stated goals.

I realize, of course, that workarounds are not always bad, and may even be necessary. From time to time we encounter situations that require detours. When these emergencies pop up, a workaround may very well be the appropriate response.

Problems arise, though, when leaders allow workarounds to become part of their regular mode of operation, when workarounds become habit. Habitual workarounds lead to inefficiency and organizational dysfunction. The temporary relief of a workaround is rarely worth the accompanying dent in organizational integrity.

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