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There's much to learn from the hacks of small organisations: Paulo Savaget

Paulo Savaget, author of The Four Workarounds, and an associate professor at Oxford University's Engineering Sciences Department and the Saïd Business School, talks about four unconventional ways to work around problems

Published: Sep 27, 2023 11:03:22 AM IST
Updated: Sep 30, 2023 11:37:50 AM IST

There's much to learn from the hacks of small organisations: Paulo SavagetPaulo Savaget, an associate professor at Oxford University's Engineering Sciences Department and the Saïd Business School

Large companies are considered to be inherently superior, better run, and better equipped than scrappy organisations and intrepid entrepreneurs. But Saïd Business School’s Paulo Savaget has a contrarian perspective. Edited excerpts from an interview:  

Q. Could you give us a peek into the book’s backstory?
I didn’t plan to study workarounds; I bumped into them as I searched for resourceful ways to tackle complex problems. More specifically, I noticed the value of workarounds when studying computer hackers. The essence of the hacker approach is that they weave through uncharted territory and, instead of confronting the bottlenecks that lie in their way, they work around them. I also learned that hacking isn’t limited to the world of computing–many scrappy organisations worldwide hacked their problems. From working around their obstacles, they addressed critical issues and were sometimes able to leave a powerful legacy, especially when it came to issues that, despite best efforts, seemed intractable.

Q. What value does a ‘workaround’ offer in contrast to the conventional approach?
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 Trojan Horse story from mythology that names one of the most notorious computer hacks. 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 won the battle. That’s the very essence of a workaround.

Now let me exemplify with one of the many cases I report in the book. Many medicines cannot be found in remote regions of Sub-Saharan Africa because of hard-to-solve bottlenecks in healthcare, such as poor infrastructure and logistics systems. A workaround doesn’t try to tackle these bottlenecks; it circumvents them instead. The organisation I studied in Zambia, ColaLife, worked around them by piggybacking on Coca-Cola’s distribution channels. They realised Coca-Cola can be found even in the remotest places on earth—so why can’t medicines take a free ride with soda bottles?

Q. You talk about four types of workarounds…
There are four workarounds, and each uses a different attribute.

  1. The Piggyback: Capitalising on pre-existing but seemingly unrelated systems or relationships. ColaLife is a good example.
  2. The Loophole: Exploiting technicalities and ambiguities in what rules do and don’t say. Examples include same-sex couples getting married outside their home countries and access to safe abortions provided on international waters.
  3. The Roundabout: Disrupting self-reinforced behaviours. Examples include a village leader in India who built twin houses, each occupied by a Dalit and non-Dalit family, to reduce caste discrimination. Also, companies like 3M and Hewlett Packard, which have benefitted from people working on unauthorised projects that proved fruitful—and now allow employees to devote 10-15 percent of their time to their own innovations.
  4. The Next Best: Repurposing resources. Examples include the use of drones to work around poor transportation infrastructure in Rwanda to deliver medical supplies.

Also read: Remember there is more to human intelligence than IQ: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Q. What makes ‘scrappy’ organisations particularly good at lateral thinking?
I call “scrappy” small organisations that are feisty, resourceful, and operate on the fringes of power. They think quickly out of necessity, and despite some apparent clumsiness they often persist and succeed because of their unconventional methods. They don’t get paralysed by what is lacking in a context; they see a world of possibilities by looking at unexplored places, finding unconventional pairings, and repurposing resources.

The early days of Airbnb serve as a prime example of a company embracing this approach. The company targeted an audience seeking accommodations beyond traditional hotels. This audience, it discovered, congregated on Craigslist, a platform with an extensive user base but that fell short in user experience. Airbnb distinguished itself with superior offerings and to gain exposure—without spending on advertising—devised an ingenious solution: Whenever an Airbnb host created a listing, the company would send them an email containing a link to automatically cross-post the listing on Craigslist. When Craigslist users encountered these Airbnb-originated listings, they were rerouted to Airbnb’s platform. This innovative approach attracted new users to Airbnb and helped the start-up take off.

Q. Workarounds are all about deviance and its transformative power. What’s the mindset needed to look beyond conformity?
All workarounds deviate from the status quo—from the conventional ways of addressing problems. But Loopholes entail working around rules, and that’s why they can be the most controversial. This kind of workaround either capitalises on ambiguity or uses an unconventional set of rules when they aren’t the most obviously applicable. As people’s ethics and morals are involved, what one person might consider positive will be viewed as negative by others.

In my research, I learned, for example, from a feminist pro-choice group that offers legal and safe abortion services to people living in countries where abortion is illegal; they take them to international waters on board a Dutch ship, where the pro-choice legislation of the Netherlands applies. I also learned from many LGBTQI couples who marry in foreign countries and later validate their marriage certificates in their home countries (where same-sex marriage is illegal).

Q. What’s the scope of workarounds in these hyperconnected times?
Workarounds thrive in complex and hyperconnected times. For example, the Rainforest Connection repurposed discarded cell phones to address one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges: illegal logging. Theold cell phones are used to “listen” to the sounds of the forest. The phones are charged with solar energy and put in protective boxes hidden up in tree canopies, distributed across the rain forest to maximize coverage. Then artificial intelligence analyzes the sounds and distinguishes between chainsaw noises and the sounds of the forest (such as birds chirping). Because the phones are connected to a network, when they “hear” chain saws they send a real-time alert with the location of the logging to rangers and community patrols, who can catch the loggers in the act.

Q. How can leadership styles contribute to workaround friendliness?

Overall, companies must be adaptive, flexible, and engage with diverse ways of approaching problems. For example, a leader can cultivate an ‘outsider’ look at recurring problems. The insider’s problem is that they rely too much on what they know—in other words, they become numb to different ways of interpreting and acting in situations that are all too familiar to them. The upside is that insiders are rarely surprised, but the downside is that they are rarely surprised. Alternatively, an outsider who is just learning something new can approach old problems from new angles.

Q. Could you talk about a workaround that has worked well in India?
I’ve learned so many fascinating examples from my fieldwork in India. After all, it’s the land of “jugaad”—a place where a lot of people find unconventional ways to address complex problems. My book covers some of them. For example, howa community created a transient school that could resist the recurring evictions of the areas they inhabit on the banks of the Yamuna River near New Delhi; how a village leader addressed caste discrimination by building twin houses to be co-habited by Dalits and non-Dalits; and how many Indians wedged tiles of Hindu gods into their walls, often about knee-high off the ground, to give would-be public urinators stage fright.

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