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by Cathryn Vandewater | January 21, 2011


Russell Bishop wants you to take responsibility for your job.

In an economic climate where employees are doing the work of two and three people, that may not come as a welcome message. But Bishop, an editor and columnist for The Huffington Post and author of Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work, insists in the book that taking control will result in less stress, more support, and a hefty deposit in your "contribution bank" on the job—which, he promises, will make you look "like someone who matters to the company."

The extra effort will also pay big dividends toward your ability to make things happen at work—no matter how scared of change your boss is, or how full your inbox of busy work is.

We sat down with Bishop to get his thoughts on workarounds, which he describes as a temporary, imperfect means to movement. But his suggestions for your approach to setbacks may cause lasting ripples of results -- at work and beyond.

1. Do What You Can First

"Lots of people in this world see something that’s not working the way they want it and, they don’t even ask the first question," Bishop claims—the question being what you can do to improve the situation.

Though it does require some effort at the output, trying out a solution independently pays major dividends. First, taking the wheel will help you feel more relaxed and in control—which will put you in a much better mental state to respond to firedrills.

And second, if you ultimately do need support from your boss or team to make a change, you're more likely to get your way. "If you're going to invest, why not invest in your own contribution capital?" says Bishop. "You're going to look like a very different animal than the "wait to be told what to do" person."

2. Do What Matters

If you feel that you're already too overburdened to fix bigger problems, it might make sense to take care of the more impactful actions first.

"If you’re overwhelmed, take a look at all the things on your plate and ask, what value shows up if I do it?" suggests Bishop. "There may be things that just don’t have any value and it’s pretty obvious, and I can take them off the plate by myself."

It's also a low-risk way to influence change around the office. Says Bishop, "I can go, “Hey boss—I’m trying to get more of the low-value work off my plate so I can focus on the high-value stuff... but what about this stuff? I’m not sure. It doesn’t look like it has the value, and it would probably be good to get rid of it.” Once again, I look like a problem solver."

3. An Object in Motion Stays in Motion

Don't discount the small tasks, advises Bishop—use them strategically to ease into the big stuff.

"I have a list called "mind like mush," he says. "When my energy starts to lag and my brain is foggy, I just go to "mind like mush" and start ticking off some of those dumb little things," he says--which can include anything from cleaning out your inbox, returning a call, or even organizing your desk. "If you do two or three or four of those things you go, Oh--this is good! I'm getting things done! And now you've got more energy."

4. But Only If There's a Sense of Completion

"Do something that matters to you," Bishop advises, "maybe not the most important thing, but something that has a start, a stop, and a finish."

That's the key to recharging—the surge of energy you get from an accomplishment, however small.

It's like exercise, according to Bishop. "Once you start the engine, your body keeps producing energy from the stored fat."

What not to do when you're flagging? Surf the web. "A lot of people will start and stop, but they never really get that finish," notes Bishop.

4. Know Your Purpose—and Track It

In his book, Bishop is careful to distinguish between "multitasking" (or half tasking, as he calls it—and advises us to avoid), and keeping up multiple goals, which he asserts is both necessary and healthy.

The key to making goals work for you is keeping them visible—along with their greater meanings. "I’m an advocate of having a list of [goals]," Bishop says. "What am I trying to accomplish and why?"

Without tracking your goals, you may lose sight of their value—which could mean a time and energy suck for nothing.

Bishop uses the banking crisis of the past few years to illustrate: "Did [banks] have a goal of putting out loans? Yes. Did they communicate to the mortgage bankers and brokers that these had to be positive loans? No."

Of course, the incentives given for simply selling loans lead to high sales, but bad deals. "That’s the difference between a goal and goal with a purpose," Bishop points out. "You can achieve the goal and lose the whole value."

5. Don't Wait for the Buy In—Just Get Started

Have an idea but can't get a few members of your team to agree on it? Try starting it on your own.

"If you wait for everybody, the organization learns that you only need one criticism or one doubt or one more thing to be studied and it never moves," says Bishop.

Our culture is one of criticism, he emphasizes, especially in a conservative corporate environment where a change that doesn't work out can result in blame.

If you start on your own, though, without asking your team to risk anything up front, you can bring some results to the next meeting—and likely find a few people willing to jump on board.

6. Take On Responsibilities Responsibly

It's great to tackle problems on your own, but look before you leap.

"Brainstorm a response of the various things you could do, and then make sure to ask yourself, "How good am I at those various choices?" suggests Bishop. "You may have to pick the second or third choice, because that's the one you can do."

Then, be willing to own the outcome—and know the risks you're taking.

"If you tackle your inbox and get it to zero—there's no risk there, you're working around yourself," Russell says. But when you involve a team, the stakes escalate—and you may want to ask permission after all.

"There's a certain amount of workarounds that you want to take only if your resume's in good shape," acknowledges Bishop.

7. Enlighten Your Self Interest

Your approach to even things you have no control over plays a key part in your success in handling them.

"Remember that you need a positive intention," urges Bishop. "If something's not going the way you want it, do you have an intention to have it be better?"

That's a key step, he says, to being more proactive, less whiny—and inspiring others to do the same, which will decrease your workload.

8. Focus on Directional Correctness

"Imagine that you're out sailing on a boat when your mast breaks," Bishop says. "You can blame the mast manufacturer or god for making too much wind, but you've still got a broken mast."

The answer, if you want to get anywhere, is a "jury rig"—an imperfect, temporary means of getting your ship moving again. That's Bishop's definition of a workaround.

But it's also the main challenge.

"The consensus wants it to be perfectly correct before they get going, and all I'm saying is get it moving," he says. As with the task list, it's a question of value: it's worth more to achieve movement in the right direction than to stay still until a perfect solution presents itself.

And that's not to say that you can't change tactics—as Bishop points out, it's easier to steer an object in motion.

As he puts it: "Life's going to change. You can change with it."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues