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Book review: Workarounds That Work

This review originally ran in the Feb. 28 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work

By Russell Bishop

McGraw Hill

You and I belong to one of two clubs at work.

We’re either part of the 99 per cent crowd or charter members of the 100 per cent club.

If you’re in the 99 per cent crowd, you can be counted on to always try to your best to see things through and get the job done. But you’re prone to bail on projects when the going gets tough and you slam into the inevitable roadblock that makes work so wonderfully unpredictable.

Launching a new project is not unlike getting strapped to a rocket and shot across the Grand Canyon. It’s a high risk proposition. And even if you’re 99 per cent committed, that missing one per cent will set you up for a really long and painful fall.

Unlike the 99 per cent crowd, folks in the 100 per cent club get the job done with a “no matter what” mindset. You don’t play the blame game. You don’t make excuses. And you don’t cast yourself in the starring role of innocent victim who’s at the mercy of conspiring forces beyond their control.

Instead, you turn problems into puzzles to be solved. And you prove that where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Everyone in the 100 per cent club has mastered the art of the workaround. Author Russell Bishop calls workarounds a method for accomplishing a task or goal when the normal process or method isn’t producing the desired results. Maybe it’s a wonky procedure, an outdated policy, a dysfunctional team, risk-averse boss or a less than helpful co-worker standing in the way of you getting the job done.

When you hit a roadblock, the first question to ask is “What could I do that would make a difference that requires no one’s permission other than my own?” The answer may be all it takes to move from roadblock to effective, productive action, says Bishop.

“The most powerful thing you can do when laid low with the frustrations that will surely arise is to keep your mind focused on your positive intention. Stay focused on what you want and why it matters. If you allow yourself to lose sight of your purpose or intention, then you will be unlikely to find a successful workaround and will instead become preoccupied with the hurdle in front of you.”

There are no shortage of roadblocks at work. Consensus and its close cousin buy-in are two fan favourites. Both can grind your project to a halt or kill it before you even get your bold and brilliant idea off the ground.

“In most versions of consensus, whenever someone objects to a decision, it is fair game to resurface the issue,” says Bishop. “And to resurface it again. And again. The basic rationale is that everyone must be on board.”

The belief that everyone will get on board is a really bad assumption to make. Savvy coworkers who like the status quo or who don’t like you or your project know they can stall momentum and reverse decisions by raising doubts and disagreements at any time. Instead of getting the job done, you’re trapped in endless meetings where an ever-widening net is cast to safeguard against anyone feeling excluded. Everyone gets a chance to weigh in, even if they have nothing to contribute and their motives are less than pure.

So here’s a good workaround to the pain of consensus-based decision making. Decide upfront who has the ultimate authority to decide something, who has the right to be consulted prior to a decision being made and who has the right to be informed once a decision’s been made.

“By clarifying rights to decide, along with the rights to contribute through consultation, you can differentiate roles and accelerate the process considerably. This simple roles and rights clarification allows more streamlined meetings involving only those who need to contribute given the nature of each meeting.”

And then there’s buy-in. Organizations that love consensus-based decision making also give buy-in a warm embrace. “Over and over, we hear the apparently sage advice that we need to create buy-in before proceeding in any new direction,” says Bishop. “In my experience, buy-in is a laudable concept that is also pretty much guaranteed to slow anything down, if not kill it outright.”

While consensus is about inviting anyone and everyone to join the discussion, buy-in looks to gain upfront support from anyone and everyone before a project moves forward.

Again, you’ll find yourself trapped in a never-ending series of meetings, discussions and debates to deal with every imaginable doubt, complaint and concern.

The workaround to buy-in is progress. Just do it. Get your project started and rack up some early wins. “If you are waiting for everyone to buy in on an idea, you may be retired before they all give the thumbs up,” says Bishop.

Instead, recruit some members from the 100 percent club, figure out what you can do on your own and get on with it. Once you start showing real progress, others will readily sign on and won’t need to be persuaded. Everyone loves a winner.

“Remember, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” says Bishop. “If you keep asking for permission and seeking buy-in, you may merely be giving people reasons to object.”

Far better to give the powers that be something that’s already been completed rather than an idea that may require a ton of debate and discussion in an endless series of meetings.

Bishop offers an arsenal of workarounds to turn seemingly intractable problems into easily solved puzzles. All the solutions rest on you first taking ownership and control.

The final word goes to Henry Ford. “Whether you believe you can or cannot, you are right.”

Letter to the editor: Integration beats segregation at schools

This letter originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Re: Poverty and segregation(Editorial, Jan. 31)

While poor kids in Niagara get a school to call their own, the people of Raleigh, N.C., opted for integration over segregation.

They recognized that kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach in schools that are overrun by poverty. So they decided that no elementary school could have more than 40 per cent of its students qualifying for subsidized lunches. Along with integrating low income students into middle class schools, Raleigh created magnet schools to bridge the divide. Family incomes and circumstances became irrelevant. All that mattered was the students’ talents, passion and potential. Test scores went up and Raleigh today ranks among the top U.S. cities for economic growth and social well-being.

With the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board looking to consolidate and close schools to deal with falling enrolment, now may be the time to borrow from Raleigh’s playbook and give low income families something they rarely get — choice. Let’s give families a real choice when it comes to their kids’ education. That freedom to choose and the power of integration may prove to be their kids’ best shot at a better life and one of our city’s most powerful poverty-to-prosperity solutions.

And here’s hoping the rest of us find the courage and the will to welcome families from Hamilton’s lower city into our schools and neighbourhoods.

Book review: Brainsteering — a better approach to breakthrough ideas

This review originally ran in the Hamilton Spectator.

Brainsteering: A Better Approach To Breakthrough Ideas

By Kevin and Shawn Coynes


At some point this year, you’ll find yourself trapped in a conference room with your comrades in arms.

With relentless enthusiasm, a “creativity moderator” with little or no knowledge of your organization will facilitate a day-long brainstorming session. After a few painful reindeer games and icebreakers to get those creative juices flowing, you’ll be encouraged to think outside the box and told to take comfort in knowing there are no bad ideas.

Most of you will adhere to the social norm of saying nothing in large groups and never making a fool of yourself in front of the senior executives who sign your paycheques and decide who gets promoted and who gets to pursue other exciting opportunities outside the organization. A few of your obnoxious and socially unaware colleagues will seize the day to pitch their pet projects and toss out bizarre ideas pulled from an alternate reality.

Every idea regardless of merit will be duly noted and the walls will soon be covered in flip chart paper. At the end of what will be a very long day, you’ll be asked as a group to walk around the room, review each and every idea and together come up with the top 10 best ideas. Wanting only to make a quick exit and deal with the real work that needs to get done, you’ll throw your votes behind whatever ideas the group thinks are winners.

There’s no real commitment to any of the ideas because everyone knows the ideas will quickly disappear into the ether, never to be heard from and spoken of again.

“Bad brainstorming sessions are actually the norm,” say authors Kevin and Shawn Coyne, brothers and managing directors of the Coyne Partnership. “The most widely utilized group ideation technique in the world usually fails. The problem with traditional brainstorming is that its methodology violates many of the psychological and sociological principles regarding how human beings work best together in a group setting.”

Instead of the usual brainstorming session, try what the Coynes call a brainsteering workshop.

“A great brainsteering workshop begins with careful planning, much more careful planning than most people are used to,” say the Coynes.

That planning starts by knowing exactly what criteria will be used to make decisions on the ideas coming out of the workshop. Are there any absolute constraints? What’s an acceptable idea? How will one idea be chosen over another? Out of the box thinking sounds good in theory. In the box thinking works far better in practice.

Pick the right questions to ask. To help you along, the Coynes at the back of their book list 101 right questions to spur breakthrough ideas. “Right questions are ones that make you take a different perspective on your problem than any you’ve taken before.”

Choose the right people to put in a room. Don’t go by job titles alone. “Pick people who can answer the questions you plan to ask, and who have the mental orientation to translate those answers into ideas,” say the Coynes.

When it comes time for the workshop, lead off by orienting us. Explain why a question-based, inside-the-box approach is the best way to get great ideas.

Now talk about the goals for the day, the criteria for evaluating new ideas, and the constraints that apply to all ideas.

Rather than attempt a group think, assign subgroups of three to five people. Give the groups 45 minutes to come up with ideas to a specific question.

“One of the worst aspects of old-fashioned brainstorming is the tendency for participants to ricochet from one shallow (and poor) idea to the next. The group never takes the time, and never develops the focus, to take a shallow idea and mould it into a better one.”

After 45 minutes, give the groups another question and repeat for four or five times for the rest of the day. Each 45-minute session should yield a couple of great ideas.

Be sure to quarantine what the Coynes call “Idea Crushers”. Big mouths and subject matter experts intentionally or unintentionally do a masterful job of discouraging and killing ideas. Do not let them mix and mingle with innocent bystanders. Instead, give them their own group.

Wrap up the workshop by explaining next steps. Have your senior executives review the questions as soon as possible. “The probability of real action resulting from any ideation declines quickly with time unless firm decisions are made right away,” warn the Coynes.

Green light the best ideas. Park good ideas for when the time is right and the stars align. Do more homework on ideas with promise. And don’t hesitate to put to rest any ideas that don’t measure up or fit the criteria you’ve established up front.

And finally, communicate back to the group on the decisions made for every idea, even the rejects. “Participants desperately want to know that they’ve been heard, that their ideas have at least had their day in court.” Close the loop and folks are more likely to participate next time and continue generating ideas that could prove to be game changers.