April 5, 2021 Randy Hain

Avoiding Workaround Traps

I think we can all agree that the most direct path between points A and B on a graph is a straight line. I hope we can also agree that most of us would prefer to be as productive, efficient and effective as possible in our daily work. This is obvious, right? But, in my experience, I often see leaders and teams avoid taking the most helpful and direct path when it comes to making decisions, being productive and addressing challenges by engaging in an ongoing series of “workarounds” to get things done. Webster’s Dictionary defines workaround as “a plan or method to circumvent a problem without eliminating it.” This is a common business trap that over-complicates decision-making, slows down execution, contributes to burnout and wastes precious time.

Have you ever fallen into the “workaround trap”?

I shared the idea for this blog post recently with a senior executive in my circle and it was interesting to see his surprised reaction, after a moment of self-reflection, when he realized how often he succumbs to this common trap. We unpacked a number of his work experiences that closely resembled similar situations causing workarounds in other organizations that I have observed over the years. He began to understand that rather than directly addressing the issues that were uncomfortable to acknowledge or lurking just below the surface, he and his colleagues had developed overly complicated approaches/responses that were impeding their success. In the case of his company’s longstanding and unproductive approach to business meetings, he realized that he had chosen to just accept this as “the way we do things around here”.  Do any of the situations below sound familiar?

Teams attending multiple unproductive, poorly planned and time-wasting meetings to address and re-hash the same business issue, with little progress being made.

Two teams are tasked with collaborating to develop a new solution for a customer, but the outcome is poorly defined, communication is poor and decision-making rights are not clear. Out of frustration, the teams retreat back into their silos and develop competing solutions rather than collaborate to create one.

A leader avoids assigning important tasks or projects to a team member who is struggling and not performing well, but the leader won’t directly address the performance issues.

Instead of speaking up in a meeting and saying the difficult things required to help the team make the right decision, team members engage in unproductive sidebar discussions with colleagues after the meeting to say what they really think.

A leader asks multiple team members to work on a project or initiative without clear role clarity and ownership out of a desire to avoid the potential conflict of selecting just one leader to be in charge.

Team members routinely multi-task during meetings. They check email and do other work because they are in so many meetings each day…and don’t have time to do their jobs.

Unclear direction on a strategy or important initiative is given and team members are unsure what to do, so they engage in unproductive “guessing” about what is required instead of risking challenging the boss and clarifying what is being asked of them.

These are some of the numerous (and very real) scenarios that often lead us to unproductively work around the challenges we may face each day at work instead of addressing them head on. The real danger of the workaround trap is how subtly it can sneak up on us and become a normal (and accepted) way of doing business. I wrote some time ago about the normalization of defects in business and the subject of this post certainly fits in with that theme.

Focusing on the 3 C’s

What are some common causes for this trap and what can we do to avoid falling into it? This is not the definitive list, but I would suggest leaders can avoid or reduce workaround traps like the ones I shared earlier by focusing on improvement in three key areas:

  1. Candor. Are we being honest, open and direct with our colleagues? Have we done our part to make it psychologically safe for our colleagues to speak with candor in public settings?  Are we willing to identify the “elephant in the room”? When we fail to actively embrace candor at work, it can contribute to the following: distrust, politics, stifled innovation, slower decision-making, inefficiency and poor execution. Our willingness to consistently engage in respectfully candid dialogue will decrease these negative outcomes and reduce the need for workarounds to solve challenges we should be addressing and solving at the onset. For helpful best practices on how to build a workplace culture of candor, check out this past blog post.
  2. Clarity. Consider how often we waste precious time, create inefficiencies and hamper execution because of a lack of clarity. When we don’t clearly answer the why, who, what and when questions at the beginning of a project, during a business meeting or in any communication we share with our team members we contribute to uncertainty and confusion. If we combine a lack of clarity with a culture that doesn’t embrace candor, leaders and team members will likely not push back and ask for the clear direction and answers they need to be successful. For more insight on the importance of clarity, read post #4 in the Simplify blog post series here.
  3. Calendar. Let’s be honest: business meetings are sometimes worshipped as a sacred cow that nobody has the courage to oppose. Many companies today endure the triple whammy of meetings that are too frequent, poorly timed and badly run.  This leads to losses in productivity, poor collaboration, and negative impacts on the well-being of both teams and individuals. This greatly contributes to the challenge of workarounds when we are scrambling to find time to do the actual work associated with our jobs. What if you had more time to think, reflect and plan? What if you could focus and reduce distractions?  Take control of the calendar. Be more discerning about what meetings you attend. Learn to say NO when necessary rather than agreeing to every meeting request. Block out meeting-free periods on your calendar to do your day job. Identify and thwart time thieves who want to take over your calendar. Learn more about calendar/time management here.

I encourage the readers of this post to look in the mirror and do a little self-reflection as my senior executive friend did recently during our conversation. Have you or your colleagues been falling into workaround traps? Are you looking to increase productivity, improve efficiency and be more effective? Consider doing a quick audit of what you and your team have been working on this year and determine if workarounds exist. If they do, apply the 3 C’s litmus test/approach and see if improving in these three areas can eliminate or improve the issue(s). I strongly suggest you will see an immediate and positive difference.

Remember, the most direct path between points A and B is a straight line.

Good luck.


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