“When a 12-year-old can gather information faster, process it more efficiently, reference more diverse professionals, and get volunteer guidance from better sources than you can at work, how can you pretend to be competitive? When the personal tools in your mobile phone are more empowering than what your company provides or approves for your projects, how can you be saved from devastating market forces? You can’t.”
And so begins the seventh of the ten Breakthrough Ideas for 2010 as written in the January/February 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review by Bill Jensen and Josh Klein, authors of the new book Hacking Work.
“So what can you do?” they write. “Hack your work.”
It’s an idea intriguing enough to pique my interest, especially given that change management consultant Bill Jensen teamed with a computer hacker, New York-based Josh Klein, to write it. It’s an idea intriguing enough to want to get a few questions answered by the pair.
Q: Okay, I’ll bite. What do you mean by “hacking work?”
A: We mean working around the prescribed ways of doing things to achieve goals, like hackers do. The benevolent hackers do it for the good of all.
Q: Why would anyone need to do that?
A: Because after two decades of research we can safely say that overall, the design of work sucks, and a lot of stupid rules persist. The tools we use in life have leapfrogged over the ones we use at work. What available for people to do their work is out of sync with what they really need to do their best. Companies are designing their tools and processes and procedures to ensure their success, but not necessarily each individual’s success. People are being asked to do their work with a massive anchor wrapped around their leg. In today’s economy, that anchor—the corporate-centered design of work—is making it really hard for everyone to keep their jobs, let alone do their best work.
By hacking your work—breaking, bending and working around business’s most stupid rules—you can not only keep your job, but begin to thrive in it.
Q: Just so I’m clear... you want people to break the rules during a time when most folks are thankful to be employed?
A: Only the stupid ones! For example, we know of one manager couldn’t get her customer-focused project approved, even though the senior team declared customer focus as a strategic priority. So she secretly videotaped customer complaints (that her project would address) and posted them on YouTube. The public outcry was so huge that the senior team quickly reversed their decision, not only approving her project, but they actually increased her budget.
Or take the trainer that told all her trainees that she knew her mandatory courses “sucked” due to circumstances beyond her control—several years of zero funding—so she sent everyone to free online courses outside of the company, tested them on what they learned, and validated their certificates in courses they never attended.
This is not malicious hacking. These are workarounds focused on stupid rules that prevent all of us from being efficient, effective and doing our best.
Q: Okay, so let’s say I’ve decided to give it a try, but it seems a bit scary to go it alone. Maybe if others are involved it’s a little safer...do you have a sense of how prevalent this kind of hacking really is?
A: It’s one of the biggest workplace secrets that most top performers are already breaking their company’s stupid rules. Current research shows that about one-third of today’s workforce use technologies not sanctioned by their companies. Why? Because corporate-sanctioned tools hold everyone back. Those rule-breakers are just trying to do their best. They need the best tools available. And if corporate won’t supply them, they’ll hack a workaround.
Same thing with university students, which is tomorrow’s workforce. Studies show that almost one-third of them have hacked around their institution’s IT structures. When you add in non-technical hacks—how people use their relationships to work around processes and procedures—between two-thirds to three-quarters of our workforce are currently hacking their work!
So, if you’re not hacking, you’ll be more alone. It’s a good bet some of your best-performing buddies are already hacking. They just didn’t tell you about it. We are.
Q: If I’m currently a non-hacker, what do I need to do to get started?
A: A few things come to mind:
- Select three things at work that bug you. Select them because you know these things well, you understand what’s holding you back and frustrating you.
- Start small. For your first hack, keep it simple, like working on a file at home and sending it to the team instead of subjecting yourself to multiple meetings with the team to accomplish the same thing.
- Have a clear purpose. How will your hack change things for the better—your workload, your stress levels, your ability to get more done in a day? Build a personal, and measurable goal into how and why you’re hacking.
- Don’t try to hack the world or be a bad-ass rule-breaker. The goal is to be successful with mini hacks, safe hacks. “Yeah…I can do this!” will carry you into bolder, bigger hacks.
Q: What is the one thing you hope readers will take away from Hacking Work?
A: That you can take control of your workload, your work-life balance, your own productivity, your efficiency. You are no longer locked into working the way employers want you to work. That changes everything: The way you work, why you work, what matters, what doesn’t matter. Hacking work is a very personal choice. Yes, throughout history, there have always been risks associated with breaking the rules. But because we’ve focused readers on only breaking stupid rules, we want them to know that benevolent hacking has unlimited and amazing potential.
“When you break or bend all the rules that involve stupid, unnecessary work,” write Jensen and Klein, “you will unleash your passion and have more time and energy to do truly great work. And once frontline performers and middle managers try hacking work—and discover they’ve increased their output by a factor of 20—they never go back.”
This concluding message from the authors brings to mind the eight years I spent working closely with a company called Toyota, a company that hired people not to just do a job, but to improve the work—to wage war on stupid stuff, to banish waste and unnecessary work—to the tune of over one million implemented ideas a year. They called it “digging your own job.” I realize that they were rather smart, because what they were really doing was sanctioning people to hack their work.
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.