Workarounds That Work
By Russell Bishop
McGraw-Hill, 244 pages, $25.95
A few years ago, productivity expert Russell Bishop was working with a hospital group in Florida that was experiencing distressing performance issues that related in part to the many separate silos within the organization. Nobody could change anything, it was felt, because that required persuading others to go along, and inevitably reform would run aground.
Mr. Bishop gathered roughly 450 managers, supervisors, and executives in a theatre-style conference room, and asked everyone to take out their notebooks and, individually, answer a series of questions:
What needs improving around here and why?
What could you do that would make a difference that requires no one's permission other than your own? (Confine your answer to just your own job and what would make your job easier, more effective, or more productive.)
What could you do that would make a difference that requires permission, co-operation or approval? Whose? (As before: What could you do that would make your job easier, more effective, or more productive - but, in this case, would also require someone else to go along?)
After everyone was done, they were asked to seal their lists with answers to the first and third questions in envelopes the consultant provided, and not to refer to them until the next meeting in a month's time. They were then told to spend the coming weeks focusing their actions on list two. What could each individual do that would make a difference in her own job that requires no one's permission other than her own?
When they reassembled in a month, the energy and excitement of the group was pronounced. Many had completed long-standing projects or raised their own performance to a standard more consistent with their beliefs.
"By directing their attention to the fact that they could do something that would make a difference, they were able to take actions that made a difference," Mr. Bishop writes in Workarounds That Work. "Getting stuff moving, making a difference, and doing so without needing anyone else to give them permission was empowering, exciting, and fulfilling."
Better yet, when they opened the two lists they had sealed, they found that 60 to 70 per cent of the changes they had identified as a group had occurred by each of them acting individually in their own area. Someone might have felt their job would improve only if a colleague did certain things, but the colleague, when liberated, without being asked, had made the desired changes because he or she felt the need as well.
The title of Mr. Bishop's book appeals to those of us trapped by organizational inertia and rules, or colleagues' blindness and stupidity. We seek workarounds that work to steer around organizational barriers and the apparent idiocy of others. But time and again, as he deals with workarounds in a host of areas, Mr. Bishop comes back to our own power to make changes. It all starts with you.
There are areas of your life that you can control yourself. A second layer, beyond that, consists of matters that you may be able to impact, but require the approval, co-operation or support of others. The final, outer layer, are matters that you can only respond to, be it the economy or the weather.
However, Mr. Bishop argues that if you have prepared well by controlling what you can and influencing where possible, you should be able to respond or adapt to changing conditions around you in a nimbler, more effective fashion. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, where we get in trouble has less to do with what happens in the outer layer and much more to do with how well we manage the inner two circles," he says.
You need a clear intention, must commit to it 100 per cent, and then must own the goal. Instead of blaming others, you must act within your sphere of personal control, and you will surprise yourself by how much you can accomplish.
That may sound Polyannish, which the book isn't. Mr. Bishop is aware that we can't change everything. He covers a lot of ground, from silos to culture clash to e-mail overload and meetings, and there is a lot of different advice, but routinely he comes back to considering what can you change yourself - his ultimate workaround.
The Most Dangerous Business Book You'll Ever Read (John Wiley, 206 pages, $29.95) by former military special ops expert Gregory Hartley and writer Maryann Karinch has a seductive title, assisted by cover hype suggesting you can learn to question like a polygrapher, sort personalities like a profiler, close a deal like a hostage negotiator, network like a spy, and interview like an interrogator.
And the book does take us into all those techniques. Unfortunately, the authors aren't adept at making the connection to business - the opening section on sorting personalities seems particularly useless - and at the end some readers might feel the title should more properly reflect that this is among the worst, or most poorly focused, business books they have ever read.
Special to The Globe and Mail