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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Have a business challenge? Try one of these 4 workarounds

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Paulo Savaget

You have studied innovation that is the result of mild deviance. How do you define these workarounds?

A workaround is a flexible and creative problem-solving approach that defies the conventions around how problems are traditionally solved — and by whom they are solved. One of the analogies I make is the notorious Trojan horse story from mythology, where the Greeks seized the city of Troy. It represents the idea that there are ways to accomplish things that have never been thought of before. In this case, the Greek soldiers didn’t have to scale the walls of Troy or break through its gates to seize the city. They came up with an ingenious idea: they built a giant wooden horse that was presented as a gift to the goddess Athena celebrating the Trojans’ victory over Greece. What they didn’t know was that there were 38 Greek soldiers hiding inside it. They were able to sneak out after dark and win the battle. That’s the very essence of a workaround.

One of your favourite examples of a workaround involves crates of Coca-Cola bringing life-saving medicine to remote areas of the world. Please summarize how this was done.

In sub-Saharan countries, diarrheal disease is one of the biggest killers of children under the age of five, and it’s a very challenging problem to address due to infrastructure issues. The treatment as recommended by the World Health Organization is very affordable and is available over the counter in most places. It doesn’t require refrigeration, which means it could travel easily from a logistics perspective. Yet there are still many remote regions in low-income countries where this medicine could not be found.

Many large organizations, including governments, are focused on improving infrastructure, logistics or funding. These things are important, of course, but they’re costly and they take a long time. A small scrappy non-profit organization focused on delivering medication called ColaLife came up with an ingenious workaround. They realized that even in very remote regions of the world, Coca-Cola is sold. So, they started literally piggybacking on Coca-Cola’s distribution chain by placing diarrheal medicines in between bottles in the delivery crates to get the medicine to remote areas.

This is an example of the first kind of workaround, the "piggyback." I call it that because they got a free ride on something that already existed, and it shows us the power of finding unconventional pairings. Who would ever think you could address a health problem by leveraging the system for fast-moving consumer goods?

A second type of workaround is the “loophole,” which we usually think of as something negative. How can loopholes be positive?

Loopholes entail working around rules, and that’s why they can be controversial. People’s ethics and morals are involved, so what one person might consider positive will be viewed as negative by others. One of the cases I cover in the book is from a group in the Netherlands that believed strongly that all women should be entitled to abortion services. Of course, the legislation in many countries doesn’t allow it, so they found a loophole: They sail their boat, Women on Waves, from the Netherlands to places where abortion is illegal. Women seeking an abortion can come onboard and sail with the group to international waters. Here’s the loophole part: in international waters, the law that applies is that of the country that owns the vessel. In other words, the legislation from the Netherlands applies in this context, so safe abortion services can be provided to these women before they are returned to their country.

You have said workarounds also saved lives during COVID-19. How so?

In high-stakes situations like the pandemic, we saw a lot of workarounds. One that caught my attention was a scenario from my home country, Brazil. Flávio Dino, then-governor of Maranhão, had worked previously as a federal judge, so he knew a lot about the rule of law. Early in the pandemic, like so many leaders, he wanted desperately to purchase ventilators for his constituents.

Maranhão is Brazil’s poorest state. You will probably remember that there was a rush to buy ventilators early in the pandemic. The supply could not meet the demand, so the first avenue the Maranhão team tried was to procure through the government. But the process would have taken far too long, and people would have paid with their lives. So instead, they changed their approach. They tried to purchase directly from a manufacturer in China through a Brazilian company that already had a procurement system in place to purchase from Chinese suppliers; this company could subsequently donate the ventilators to the government.

However, there is no direct flight from China to Brazil, because the distance is too long. So the plane had to stop somewhere to refuel. The first and the second time they tried this, they refuelled in Germany and the United States, and both times, the ventilators were confiscated by these countries due to the huge demand.

Then they tried something else: some of the local companies had representatives in China because they procured from there. Once they got their hands on the ventilators, they chartered a cargo flight, and instead of refuelling in Germany or the U.S., they stopped for fuel in Ethiopia because they assumed there would be less monitoring of the cargo and that the country wouldn’t have the resources to confiscate the ventilators.

Even once they passed this hurdle, they still had to go through São Paulo to get through customs. This would be a challenge because the Federal government could confiscate the ventilators and re-route them to other Brazilian states. So, once they landed in São Paulo, they quickly took a second flight to the state of Maranhão. Even in Maranhão, the federal government was the employer of the Revenue Customs officers, and they could still confiscate the cargo. But the team planned it in a way that once they landed, it would be after hours and customs officers had gone home for the day. A state secretary signed a document ensuring that he would return the following day to fulfil the legal requirements (which was, in fact, done), and state government employees took the equipment directly to hospitals to intubate patients.

If anyone claimed they were violating laws or administrative processes, they could honestly say they were not. Sure, they worked around the rules, but they didn’t necessarily violate them. That’s an example of a sequence of workarounds on top of workarounds that allowed life-saving equipment to make it to public hospitals in one of the poorest Brazilian states.

Tell us a bit about the third type of workaround, the "roundabout."

Roundabouts interrupt self-reinforcing behaviours and buy time to mobilize, negotiate and develop alternatives, alleviating an urgent problem while building momentum to pivot in a different direction.

An example is the social distancing we all endured during the pandemic. In March of 2020, the scientific community quickly underscored that in the midst of the worst public health emergency in 100 years, we simply couldn’t continue with our usual daily lives. Locking ourselves away in our homes might have seemed backward, but because COVID-19 spreads at an exponential rate, we needed a temporary stopgap measure to slow the rate of transmission. While they couldn’t end the pandemic on its own, social distancing lockdowns did save lives and bought time for vaccine and treatment development.

You have said Bitcoin and cryptocurrency are examples of another kind of workaround, "next best." Please explain.

A next best workaround focuses on repurposing or recombining resources, which can range from the most high-tech to the most basic. One of the most famous workarounds ever pursued by tech enthusiasts emerged in 2008: Bitcoin. This cryptocurrency — and the blockchain technology it relies on — were created in the aftermath of the global financial crisis when distrust of financial institutions was high.

The geeks saw people in debt while governments bailed out big corporations. By inventing cryptocurrency, they found a way to bypass the centralized structures of the financial system, providing an alternative for anonymizing members and making transactions possible that left no detectable traces.

 If you think about it, some of the worst harm to humankind has been perpetrated and validated by people following a system of rules. When we blindly follow rules, we ignore that rules aren’t necessarily fair. We should never think of conformity as the only option.

Satoshi Nakamoto — a pseudonym that disguises the (still unknown) identity of a person or group of people — registered the domain and authored a paper on peer-to-peer electronic cash system, explaining how it works.

In 2009, the network came into existence, allowing everyone to “mine” the digital coin through a lottery-based system and to transact Bitcoin digitally and untraceably. The idea was so promising — and the timing was so good — that Bitcoin quickly took off. For better or worse, cryptocurrency systems have opened up room for many others to creatively work around mainstream financial organizations (and law enforcement, in some cases.)

Does all of this come down to becoming comfortable with being deviant?

It does, yes. But I always distinguish between deviance and disobedience. These workarounds are not necessarily disobedience; they simply deviate from the status-quo in effective ways. I actually believe we don’t deviate enough in life. The problem is that the “social contract” makes us believe that conformity is always preferable — that our unconditional compliance frees us from our harmful natural instincts.

A better way of looking at conformity and deviance is by contrasting ourselves with machines. Conformity means doing as we’re told, or as we’ve been programmed to do. It means we haven’t critically evaluated our options or acted based on reasoning. In this mindset, deviance is what humanizes us and makes us stand out.

How can we learn to recognize opportunities for workarounds?

When we analyze a problem, our instinct is usually to try to get a fuller, more detailed picture. We assume that a more detailed picture is better, just as we assume that more — and more specialized — resources will always help us deal better with our problems. What if, instead, we thought a little more like a hacker, working only with the materials we have immediately at hand?

If we embrace working with what we have rather than what we want, we can start addressing pressing challenges. I often make an analogy to the camera lens. Just as focus, aperture and shutter speed are components of capturing an image, rethinking our resources, focus and scope are all ways to shift our mind’s inner “lens” to emphasize different aspects of a phenomenon. I encourage readers to use these workaround strategies as they would fiddle with the settings on a digital camera: curiously, playfully and frequently.

 This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Subscribe today.

Paulo Savaget is a professor at Oxford University and author of The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World’s Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems.