Working Around Life's Obstacles

Walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it has to be a duck, right? In a word, no. At least not in the case of Russell Bishop's new offering Workarounds That Work -- How to Conquer Anything that Stands in Your Way at Work. The title, subtitle and cover art all suggest yet one more addition to the huge library of business success books, yet there is a wonderful surprise lurking beneath the surface here.

Bishop has a long and impressive track record solving problems and bringing people together as a corporate consultant for major corporations. In that role he has developed something of the voice of the elder statesman, not necessarily a member of the wink-and-nod crowd, but certainly a certain savvy and perhaps even gravitas. He's a straight shooter and his chapter heads, (It All Starts With You, Getting the Right Things Done, Misaligned Leadership and Unclear Direction, Death by Decision: Stop Deciding and Start Choosing, When the Best and Brightest Are Wrong, just to name a few) ring simple and true.

Indeed, every one of the book's 238 pages delivers something that smells like nuts and works like bolts -- useful observations, information and techniques that help the reader look at the same old thing in a fresh and different way. Most of it isn't startlingly new, but all of it is couched in a fashion that makes it feel like it is, and stimulates a different approach. That's something, because unless we're Einstein or Homer, it has all been said before. How many times, for example, have we read ways to stop procrastinating and just get down to work? How many times have we heard not to blame others for our own laziness and shortcomings? Plenty, and Bishop doesn't go there. Instead, for example, he likens work to exercise. It's there and you can duck and dance all you want, but it still has to get done.

In the chapter titled The Email Avalanche he adds to the run of solid advice by giving the desk jockey's nemesis a clever once-over. "Always change the 'subject' line to reflect what you're doing," he writes. "Use the Cc line for people who need to know about the action but do not have to take action themselves." Ever thought of it quite that way? Hmm. In addition to tried-and-true recommendations for handling clutter, Bishop actually discusses screen dimensions in this chapter, reminding you that there may be important messages waiting below the line of your browser window. Nuts-and-bolts indeed.

Admittedly, some of Bishop's observations are standard corporate fare, as in the obvious concept (in the chapter Are You a Corporate Firefighter?) that while it's wonderful to be the hero, the need for repeated dramatic rescues reveals some fundamental mismanagement. On the other hand, there are some real gems. The chapter on making decisions, for instance, advances the innovative notion that we should substitute choosing for deciding. The word "decide", Bishop says, suffers from the suffix "ide", which is often associated with killing, as in fratricide, homicide, etc. Deciding, he writes, is a process of limitation, while choosing can be a creative, a positive and proactive process.

In another particularly memorable passage, the author reminisces about the way spelling tests were graded when he was a child. -7, for example, or -4. Instead, he suggests, why not focus on how many answers we get right? This deceptively simple idea echoes one of the books recurring themes, which has to do with choosing positive options over negative ones.

Many books in this category work their magic from the outside in. That is to say they examine the circumstances, obstacles and issues and propose external solutions. Other books in the genre turn this around and go from the inside out, looking at the prejudices, presuppositions, habits and addictions we harbor on the inside, and how they manifest in our external life. Workarounds That Work is a rare find in that it examines its topic from both directions. Thus, in addition to advice on how to organize your in boxes, we see lines like "What could you do that would make a difference in your job that requires no one's approval, cooperation, support, or agreement other than your own?", concepts like "time management problems are really self management problems", and chapter heads like Multitasking Our Way to Oblivion, wherein Bishop cleverly proposes substituting the setting of multiple goals to the juggling of multiple tasks.

The more you read, the more you realize that Workarounds That Work is a personal development guide hidden as a business handbook. Spirituality circulates through the book's business meat and management gristle like blood through bone. It's a treat of a read for a much wider swath of readers than its category feel would suggest. Here's hoping that in his next book, this practical sage will be brave enough to cross the line he only touches with his toe in this one and give us his thoughts on the repurposing of business so that profits are not the Holy Grail, but rather merely a tool for the development of employees and community.