Hacking work: How to break the rules to work better

  • 4 May 2012
  • From the section Business
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Image caption 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.

"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."

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.
Image caption 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.

Image caption 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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