October 22, 2010

Staff Picks: Hacking Work

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 6:36 PM – Filed under: Innovation & Creativity

Does the infrastructure your company set up to help you get your work done actually get in the way of you doing it? Does it slow you down, or even create extra work instead of streamlining it? Well then, it's time to start hacking work. In fact, you may be doing so already. Are you using online tools to move information amongst your team to get around your corporate firewalls? Did you start a ladies night out to strengthen relationships at work and break down hierarchical divisions? Did you use your social network to help solve problems at work your boss couldn't, or wouldn't, address? If so, then you have been hacking work.

As Bill Jensen and Josh Klein explain in Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results, hacking work, like (ethical) computer hacking, is all about "taking the usual ways of doing things and work[ing] around them to produce improved results." And, like any great idea, the implications range from the micro to macro—from an individual using Gmail to get around their IT department's storage constraints, to Barack Obama going straight to individuals for $25 donations to work around the monied interests of traditional political fundraising. One of the more interesting examples is the Diaspora Project's work to build the first open-source social network to be owned by the individuals using it, with the goal of putting users back in control of how their information and content is used, accessed, and seen online.

Jensen and Klein describe themselves as "just two guys who have dedicated [their] professional lives to finding work-arounds to corporate bullshit," and their book is about breaking rules for the greater good. As they write at the beginning of Section 2:

Stupid rules shift the costs of work from the company onto you without delivering equal or better value back to you.

This means you pay the price for someone else's bureaucracy or, worse, for their bad decisions.

Breaking stupid rules means getting smarter results: for you, your team and your company.

That last point is key. Hacking work is not done with malicious intent, but to "save business from itself." It is done not only to help make your work easier, but to protect your company from its own inefficiencies by working around them—whether they be technical or relational inefficiencies, firewalls or power structures. When done right, it can fix a system that is broken and foster creativity among workers where there were once only obstacles. When done right, you're working better, faster and smarter, which in turn makes the company around you work better, faster and smarter.

And as we've seen from the examples above, your "company" can be much bigger than the where you go to work everyday. It can be an online community or, even a country. The authors also use the example of Iranians using Twitter and Facebook to document protests in their country as an instance of hacking work. But they don't stop there. Hacking work might just have been the kick in our collective evolutionary pants.

Agriculture was most likely a work hack: Instead of always roaming over the next hill every time the clan needed grain, someone cleverly figured out they could grow it closer to camp. Gronk, their leader, neither asked for nor approved this change. And his head of manufacturing—Club and Spear Guy—most certainly felt threatened. The clan's operations would have to change to meet the needs of of its new farmers.
Harvard Business Review has called the book "one of the top ten breakthrough ideas for 2010," but as the authors note above, humans have been hacking work long before this year. And it all begins with three motives:
Curiosity: "I wonder what would happen if..." Imagination: "Gee, wouldn't it be cool if..." Drive: "I will not accept 'no.' There has got to be a better way!"

No one expects you to change the foundations of human social organization, but there is always a better way close at hand. So... how are you hacking work?