Hacking work: How to break the rules to work better

Hacker Buck the system: Hacking work - finding ways round restrictive systems in the workplace - has risks but could benefit your whole company, says Josh Klein

"Hacking" means to reassemble a system to produce a different or superior result.

Technology of Business

"Work" has long meant a series of highly structured, heavily bureaucratic processes through which financial value is derived from human labour.

The former is more popular than ever before in human history due to widespread access to information, expertise and instruction via the internet - and the latter? Well, the latter is on the way out.

Call it "agile" or "iterative," "innovating" or "pivoting", call it "freelancing" or "outsourced."

It's the ugly truth that globalisation and technology are creating a workforce that can move faster, think quicker, and produce newer/better than the large corporations which purport to retain them.

The result of this upsurge of independents, when combined with all this freely available computational capability and information access that now resides in the cloud, is the complete reworking of "work."

Start Quote

There are downsides [of hacking work]; namely, you could lose your job”

End Quote Josh Klein

Employment is being hacked, and increasingly, it's being hacked in the interest of the smaller/faster upstarts whose insight large companies so require. So what's to be done?

Join them.

If your company is suffering from inefficiencies, lack of insight, stagnation, or outmoding of any kind, the answer lies right in front of you in the form of those iconoclasts who are so busily rewriting the rules of your formerly staid marketplaces.

As an exercise, try some of these:

  • Find one hated piece of software you're "required" to use and Google a workaround; use Google Docs instead of Excel, Drop Box instead of Sharepoint, or whatever it is you're saddled with. Try it for a week or two. See how much more efficient you are.
  • Write a list of the most obviously bad policies in your company and identify what easy, free, or cheap solutions exist that might address them. Put a monetary value on how much the company would save if you used one or more of those solutions. Pitch it to your boss.
  • Ask your 10-year-old nephew or 15-year-old niece what they think is wrong with your recent ad campaign or car design or performance evaluation. Take their answer seriously and consider how you could implement their solutions.
Josh Klein Josh Klein defines hacking work as breaking the rules in small ways to net you greater efficiency
  • Set up a wiki (a web page anyone can edit) that allows for anonymous contributions. Encourage your co-workers to participate in problem solving on the wiki and see where it gets you.
  • Poke around online for ways to hack the one piece of hardware that pains you the most. Jailbreak your phone so you can put better software on it. Flash the firmware on your wi-fi router so you can ensure your team gets good bandwidth. Put a piece of tape over the webcam your boss uses to surreptitiously spy on you and your peers.

What's the common thread here? Hacking.

It's breaking the rules, typically in small ways, to net you greater efficiency from the working systems you're stuck within.

Pros and cons

The goal is to improve those systems, not just for yourself, but for everyone - and ultimately to improve and replace those systems altogether.

When companies lock down their systems and fail to listen to staff feedback, more often than not the result is that employees take matters into their own hands and find ways getting round their restrictions.

It's what we're seeing in the dissolution of archaic markets and business models, and in the creation of new ones - a highly efficient, individual-driven community shift towards solutions that work, and that carry more than just precedent.

There are downsides; namely, you could lose your job.

Padlocked Mac The goal is to improve working systems for everyone, says Josh Klein

But the upsides far outweigh the risk.

Research shows that job security today is an illusion, and simultaneously throws into stark relief that the ones who are excelling in their fields are doing so despite the corporate systems that surround them.

The worst-case scenario is you try to improve your work for everyone and learn a great deal in the process, but the best-case scenario makes you a superhero.

Freed of deliberate inefficiencies and artificial constraints, you become capable of truly great work, and in doing so you'll discover what motivates you - and how to be truly great at something you love.

It's not an overnight affair, but it's a better journey than the dead-end course chartered by your cubicle.

What's more, it's the path you're already on now whether you know it or not: you just have to take the first step.

Josh Klein is the co-author of the book Hacking work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results. He is currently working on The Link, a television series for the National Geographic channel on the history of innovation, which will be broadcast at the end of May 2012.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @45 - The average person who mistakes this for good advice usually doesn't bother to think why the system was designed the way it was. There are more factors to take into account than one individual's work process. People too oftentend to think of Information Security as a barrier. Sure you can't just walk through a fortress wall to reach the fields, but it keeps the barbarians and bandits out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    As IT Security Officer for a global retail business, I would have no option but to immediately dismiss any employee that followed the advice in this article.

    How about some mature responsibilty?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Can you please change the picture associated with this article, not only does it serve to negatively stereotype the use of the word "hacking" which is actually reflected upon positively in your article. But also quite misleading to people who havent yet read the article and are trying to decide if its good or bad.

    Also the guy looks possesed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    This only works well when individuals are grown up enough to know the consequences of their actions and take responsibility for them. Most bureaucracy gets put in place because people do these very things and it all goes horribly wrong and then people like me find it takes twice as long to do their jobs and everything grinds to a virtual halt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Goodness, what a lot of ruffled feathers among the "experts"! Too many people in staff functions think that the work needs to change to meet the requirements of the system. Not good enough. The systems need to evolve to support the objectives and purpose of the work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Agile/hacking can be used by competent engineers to improve productivity.

    More often it is used as cover by incompetent engineers. Produce a quick ‘prototype’, demo it in a very limited environment, then walk away. Who cares if it fails in the real world.

    NEVER pay a bonus for ‘agile’ developer until their product has been proved by extensive use..

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Given the sort of data processed by even the lowest level employees at my workplace, ANY of these suggestions would result in a data breech that would cost that employee their job and pension as well as burning both the employee and oragnization in the press. Advising people to 'bypass procedure' also opens us up to lawsuit if it comes out that not all people were treated the same way by us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Jerome Kerviel.would have a lot to teach us about work hacking!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    #38 Terry

    I agree. This is very irresponsible. I do IS too and people who behave like this cause real regulatory/licensing/security problems for us. My phone comment earlier was driven by a work meeting I had just come out of on a decision on how to handle people who jailbreak/root company phones. We don't see them as innovators, we see them as a compliance risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    With that level of drive, rebellion, imagination and pragmatism you are much better off creating your own company with your own rules and solutions, it will be much less risky, more rewarding, less frustrating and more fulfilling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    If you consider "hacking" a system, remember that if you want to be helpful to the company you must go to the effort to understand how the current system works and why it is that way
    - Are there security implications?
    - will everyone else be able to do it the way you do?
    - does it break the IT support agreement?
    If you can frame your idea in a well researched way you may be a star, if not...

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Might I suggest a clear message is sent to BBC to remove this article. I've just sent a message on http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_3990000/newsid_3993900/3993909.stm


  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    You remember the last time you read that a memory stick containing private individual's information (unencrypted) had been lost in a pub?

    Or that a large computer system failed because a member of staff circumvented security systems designed to prevent viruses and trojans?

    Now you have an idea why!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Josh Klein is naive; a organization must have Information Security requirements to protect themselves, their intellectual property but also their clients/customers. Suggestions like "Drop Box instead of Sharepoint"! What classified data would a user be sending to these potentially insecure services (recent Dropbox security issues), this is the type of risk these "rules" are trying to manage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    But, er, isn't this the normal approach to getting your work done?

    At least, if you are results-oriented and don't confuse 'working hard' with 'working excessive hours' to accomplish what you are trying to do. The whole point is to make achieving your goals as easy as possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Got to agree with Diana_France. This article is full of holes e.g. so-called "freeware" tends to be free to individuals, but not to businesses.
    Encouraging illiterate people to mess around with their work PC, phone etc... is ludicrous.
    One of the main entry points for viruses etc... is through PC apps e.g. Internet Explorer. Just how safe are freeware apps???
    BBC - this is totally irresponsible

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Is it worth saying "Josh Klein - you're an idiot"! ?

    Oh and laughingman, lack of space prevented me from adding that my role is Information Security not IT Security. Think of all the paper based records in a hospital .................. they need to adhere to the same policies as the health records system should be viewed as an 'information system' like any other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    As the gatekeeper who enforces the policies in question, I can assure you, we have a plethora of legal reasons why we have to do things the way we do. Also when some hotshot wandered in and tried to redo the business processes to suit what he saw as 'better' resulted in a system everyone hates and I am frequently asked to destroy/remove/sabotage by people forced into using it over the old stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Please take this article down right now, BBC! IT Pros can see horrendous risks by following this advice regardless of data ownership and security, network security, legislation, business contracts - grossly irresponsible and ignorant, giving free publicity to some prat pushing his silly book. I have to put right during my work problems arising from such carelessness and would sack anyone caught

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Well I hate to say it, I'm from a non-IT background. But, I have built a career in IS & DP. Perhaps the difference is, I KNOW I'm not a 'techhead' and I try to make sure I have a good working relationship with the 'techheads' around me.

    I know what the policy requires, ask the tech how it will be achieved and how much. The business then make a decision knowing the costs, risks and benefits.


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