4 Tactics to Help You Solve Any Dilemma, From an Oxford Business Expert

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

When Paulo Savaget was just an intern, his chronically busy boss almost never replied to his emails.

It wasn't just him: His colleagues had the same problem, too. Without that regular communication, Savaget and his coworkers struggled to build a connection with their boss, and were unable to get the ball rolling on crucial projects, he says.

Today, Savaget is an Oxford University business and engineering professor with a recently published book titled "The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World's Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems." The book details his "systematic approach" to solving common workplace problems, including four distinct strategies for solving particularly complex dilemmas, Savaget tells CNBC Make It.

His research dates back at least as far as that stonewalling boss, because instead of accepting the email roadblock, he found a clever workaround.

Here's what he did, and how you can adapt his strategies to solve your own dilemmas.

Identify trends

First, Savaget did some research. He talked with his colleagues, and identified a couple trends.

His boss seemed to primarily respond to emails between 5 and 7 a.m., before moving onto other tasks for the day, Savaget says. The boss also clearly read emails from the top of his inbox to the bottom, only responding to the emails he could get through in that time frame. 

Savaget realized what was happening: His emails, typically sent in the afternoon, were stuck at the very bottom of his boss' inbox.

Rather than waking up and logging on at 5 a.m., Savaget started scheduling his emails the night before, so they'd send just before the boss checked his inbox each morning. That way, the emails would arrive while the boss was looking for them, sitting at the top of his queue.

Like clockwork, his boss started replying, making it easier to finally start building a working relationship, Savaget says.

How to use Savaget's 'workarounds'

The key to emulating Savaget's solution lies in picking the right approach for a given situation, he says.

Getting his boss to respond to his emails was a "roundabout solution," where you buy time to solve a bigger problem by hacking an existing habit. The boss already had a routine when it came to his emails, and Savaget merely worked it to his advantage. 

Other problems may call for different tactics.

The "piggyback solution," for example, is when you look for something that's already working and then pair it with your current goal. Your workplace might have a robust mentorship program, but little formal support for new hires — and coupling those resources could help new hires see the same benefits.

Then there's the "loophole" solution, where you look for ambiguity in existing rules. It's akin to same-sex couples in countries without legal gay marriage traveling elsewhere to get hitched, Savaget explains.

The last strategy is "the next best" workaround, Savaget says. Rather than waiting for a perfect solution, you use what's already around you, either as a temporary fix or as a way to set a new precedent. If you're running short on prizes at an office party, you could provide an option for an IOU that doubles your winnings, for example.

Crucially, you shouldn't ever use these strategies to circumvent any important rules or get a leg up by behaving dishonestly, Savaget says: They're most effective when you focus on getting around small roadblocks, rather than gigantic structural obstacles.

Much like the email dilemma, he adds — a seemingly unsolvable problem that simply needed some ingenuity to resolve.

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