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Scrappiness is a virtue
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Kai Miller
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5 min read
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Hacks and workarounds can close the gap between vision and reality.
‘Our organisation has grown so much that they can’t do strategy on the back of a cocktail napkin. They need more structure in place, because everybody in this now huge organisation is kind of floundering without a strategy, so everyone’s doing their own thing and it’s reactive.’
Many participants described working in organisations where adopting new ideas and strategies – and, crucially, executing them – was challenging. Organisations seemed to be clinging to cultures and business models that had worked in the past, and which were unsuitable either for the current shape and size of the organisation or for the complex environment they were now working in.
‘They’re very people centric, but they don’t have the balance of the culture and the execution. And I think that’s partly why they need so many people: it’s very 9 to 5, there’s no sense of urgency, timelines get very delayed. It’s a very challenging place to be.’
‘They think they’re just like this big happy family, aiming for consensus. Everything’s important. They don’t want to say no to everybody. The leadership like to get involved in everything so there’s no prioritisation.’
Oxford’s Paulo Savaget introduced the idea that, faced with a problem, it does not always have to be confronted directly by creating a new strategy or creating a new system. He encouraged participants to think about using ‘hacks’: taking an indirect approach, piggybacking on systems that already exist, and even using shortcuts. He reassured participants that ‘You don’t always have to tidy things up or think that you can tame complexity’.
This approach is key to changing behaviours and, ultimately, culture. Telling people to adopt new behaviours, beliefs or ideas seldom works, especially if they see no compelling reason to change. However, it is possible to nudge and to introduce incremental changes that make life easier. Eventually, people find that they have adopted new behaviours without realising it. The ambiguity of the chief of staff role – not totally within the hierarchy – makes it easier for them to implement these small-scale, low-profile fixes.

However, many people within the group expressed discomfort with words such as ‘fix, ‘hack’ and ‘workaround’. They thought they sounded ‘amateur’, ‘temporary’, ‘sloppy’ and ‘unprofessional’.
Instead, they preferred to reframe workarounds as ‘experiments’ or ‘pilots’ – thinking of themselves as working underground, buying time, allowing ideas to gain support and momentum.
In fact, once started on this approach, the questions became about how large organisations can ‘get your scrappiness back once you have the resources not to be scrappy?’ Once again, the chief of staff is in an ideal position to launch pilots and hackathons to ‘get outside the box, poke the system, create discomfort’.
‘Our leadership is new, so everyone comes in with ideas about what should be done. The model is not fleshed out yet.’
‘The institution that I work for has been doing well. So they don’t see the need for change. There is a sense of “well this has always worked. Why do we need to change?”’