A workaround is a temporary solution to an unexpected problem encountered in the course of completing a project. It can also refer to an alternative method for achieving the same goal as a result of unforeseen complications with the original approach. Workarounds are often used as quick-fixes when there isn't enough time or resources available to find a permanent resolution.
Discover the meaning of 'workaround' in project management and learn how to effectively implement temporary solutions to overcome unexpected obstacles. This article covers when to use workarounds, real-world examples, and tips for balancing workarounds with long-term solutions.
When to Use a Workaround
Workarounds are generally used when there is an unexpected problem that needs to be resolved quickly. This could be due to limited resources, budget constraints, or a lack of available time. Workarounds should also be employed when the desired outcome cannot be achieved with the current method or system in place. For example, a workaround could be used to avoid a minor bug preventing a delay on a software project.
5 Real-world examples of workarounds
1. A road diversion
A road diversion or detour is a workaround put in place when part of a route is closed because of construction or damage. The detour is marked by signage and takes the driver by a longer and/or more round-about route to their destination avoiding the closed road. Diversions are not there to avoid dealing with a problem, but to make it easier to fix. They may temporarily delay you getting home, but they will be removed once the road is reopened.
2. A temporary repair
While waiting for a permanent fix a temporary repair is put in place as a workaround. For example, the image above is of Miles Glacier Bridge which was given a temporary repair after an earthquake in 1964. The final repair was completed in 2004.
3. A manual intervention in an automated system
Sometimes an automated process or system may need manual or human intervention to get around a problem. As for a road diversion this should be a temporary workaround while a permanent solution is found. There are many examples of manual interventions in all sort of business and industries. A classic example is when a manual intervention is needed to fix errors in data when it is passed back and forth between two or more IT systems. The workaround is valid if this step is done once or twice while the data handling is improved, but becomes a problem if a person is permanently needed to prevent data import errors.
4. An extra step in a process
Poorly designed or necessarily manual workflow may result in informal extra steps being added to a process. For example, a University consultant found that documents requiring department head sign-off were being returned to the admin team after each signature rather than being passed on to the next approver. This inefficient step was added because documents were getting 'stuck' in in trays. When the documents were passed from department head to department head, the admin team had difficulty tracking down overdue approvals. The workaround of forcing the return of the document after each signature meant they could pin-point the department head who was causing a delay (Maphis, K. 2018).
5. Side-stepping or avoiding part of a process
Process or procedural workarounds can flourish in complex and very busy workplaces. Researchers studying workarounds in Dutch hospitals found that nurses would side-step processes to try to improve efficiency. For example, many modern hospitals have implemented electronic barcode-assisted medication administration (BCMA) - barcodes are added to patient's wristbands to reduce medication administration errors. The researchers observed 15 workarounds of BCMA, such as affixing patients' wristbands to computer carts and carrying several patients' prescanned medications on carts (Koppel, Ross et al. 2008).
These examples, show how workarounds can be positive or negative response to a problem. When they are transparently and deliberately implemented as a temporary solution they are very effective, but when permanent solutions aren't found they can become a hidden, unquestioned and even dangerous part of a process.
Balancing Workarounds and Permanent Solutions in Project Management
While workarounds can be valuable tools for addressing unexpected challenges, it is essential to balance their use with the pursuit of permanent solutions. Consider the following guidelines:
Prioritize long-term solutions: Whenever feasible, prioritize developing and implementing permanent solutions to problems, as they typically provide more stability and prevent recurring issues.
Use workarounds judiciously: Employ workarounds when necessary, but be mindful of their temporary nature and potential risks. Do not rely on them as the primary problem-solving strategy.
Transition to permanent solutions: Develop plans for transitioning from workarounds to more sustainable, long-term solutions when resources and time permit.
Workarounds are incredibly useful to avoid delays and as in the case of a road detour, to facilitate a long term fix. They help to keep projects on track and minimize any potential losses (schedule delays or cost overruns). That said, it's important to remember that a workaround should only ever be a temporary solution, to keep things moving while the root problem is being resolved.
Historic American Engineering Record, C., Heney, M. J., O'Neel, A. C. & Copper River & Northwest Railway, Lowe, J., photographer. (1968) Copper River & Northwest Railroad, Million Dollar Bridge, Spanning Copper River at Miles Glacier, Cordova, Valdez-Cordova Census Area, AK. Valdez Cordova Census Area Cordova Alaska, 1968. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ak0192/. No known restrictions on images made by the U.S. Government; images copied from other sources may be restricted. https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/114_habs.html
Maphis, K. (2018) Are workarounds an excuse to accept bad process design?, EDUCAUSE. EDUCAUSE. Available at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/4/are-workarounds-an-excuse-to-accept-bad-process-design (Accessed: April 4, 2023).
Koppel, Ross et al. “Workarounds to barcode medication administration systems: their occurrences, causes, and threats to patient safety.” Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association : JAMIA vol. 15,4 (2008): 408-23. doi:10.1197/jamia.M2616