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 89.

    Most of the comments miss the point. Its not about subverting IT. Its about taking initiative. Some people do this and it's called progress. I'm pretty sure Google or apple would have been created via a locked down corporate laptop.

    I regularly suggest trials of things to IT. Recently we swapped the whole company to Gmail. It's awesome. It works with Outlook too for those that want both!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I think the subject of this article is brilliant.The article itself is a bit shallow though and could do with further research.

    I am a rent-a-worker and I could do so much to improve the production at my workplace. Still I would never help my employer for the rate I'm getting.
    With a price on my ideas and a small consultancy company set up for the purpose I could charge whatever I can get.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Please BBC do not report these silly thoughts. It lowers your status. Any actions like those mentioned may result in a retrograde impact on someone's career.
    Dictionary definition of "career" : "to move hapazardly from side to side".

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I envisage that the people who get hot and bothered about this article are the same ones who drive their cars off a pier because their SatNav told them to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I think that this articles does have an irresponsible view. In my opinion, this is the casualtues of the older generation. If more younger people was given the oppurtunity to work in the huge corporations then I think the culture would change, this is also highlighted in roostaC where "IT departments are under resourced".

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Isn't this article just advocating what we have all called "thinking outside the box" for the last 20 years?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Okay, fine hack away AFTER YOU HAVE CONSULTED WITH YOUR BOSS, pitched your idea and gained permission. The system is not yours to play around with. If you hack without permission, you should be fired (and given a bad recommendation).

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I understand the frustration that drives this kind of suggestion but it is rarely this simple. Its not so bad if all your end users are IT literate and self supporting, but if they rely on an IT department to provide services, then its unreasonable to think that they can support a wide and diverse set of clients and software. A large majority of IT departments are under resourced as it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.


    I accept not all processes are perfect, but there are to make them more efficient. Anything else is a free for all that leads to confusion, error and data loss.

    When I am being audited I need to prove the following.
    There are Policies,
    Policies are supported by processes
    Processes are followed,
    where necessary, logs are made.

    It's evidence which is needed by all orgs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Do not take advice from this if you value your career. Policies are defined for a reason and unless you have an understanding of IT governance, information security, risk management and the challenges facing most IT department on a daily basis you should close your MacBook, stop writing irresponsible rubbish, slow down, take a breath and let the professionals do their jobs. We are not the enemy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    74 spaceyjase

    I think there's a place in small businesses for the article's principals. Bigger companies with hundreds or thousands of employees need process as staff turnover is high, so using Excel for example means compatibility & less training. It also suits most employees.

    Process improvements like you describe happen every single day, without the need for people to don cowboy hats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    "Grumpy Old Man

    No the word IS "hacking" - as in the book 'Hackers - heroes of the Computer Revolution' updated material from noteworthy hackers such as Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg, Richard Stallman & Steve Wozniak,

    'Modding' is a kiddie word for changing (not becessarily improving - e.g. go-faster stripes, LED lights).

    'Jailbreaking' is fanbois term for 'rooting' i.e. accessing root status.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

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

    It's also a fast track way to get your P45 slotted between the cheeks of your posterior before being bum rushed out the door.
    This has to be the most irresponsible advice on a BBC blogg I have ever seen or heard. Anyone seriously considering doing this has to be an idiot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    @74 Read the article. This is why we have a problem with it. It tells you to try some of these exercises..... that's an instruction, not a non-literal suggestion.

    There is nothing wrong with pragmatism but in a regulated industry, you have to work within the rules. If your regulations are too 'light touch' economies could fail..... sound familiar?

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Apart from the already mentioned irresponsible advice within this article, this article is nothing but a shameless book plug.

    Is the BBC news site now into advertising rather than news?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Maybe the point of the article has been lost. I think it is good overall; it's about thinking pragmatically about a process and breaking free and improving when you see the opportunity with a demonstration or example of how the result was achieved. The examples aren't to be taken literally.

    Far too many follow process unquestionably.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    66 Bobble

    I can see where you're coming from but the article seems oblivious to the need for regulation, the hoops you have to jump through to gain the accreditation needed for large contracts, the risk of litigation etc.

    An example of this is that if you wish to do big business in the USA, you need Sarbanes-Oxley compliance due to Enron-style anonymous corruption / cowboy practice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Pointless stupid article. Most rules relating to IT etc are there for a reason. Memory sticks are banned in most places for very good reasons. Software is standardised on all company PCs for very good reasons. If you have a problem with process, rather than listen to the drivel from this article and probably get sacked why not ask why its not done in a 'better'/different way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.


    Maybe they sent someone an e-mail asking for clarification. But, because somebody at the BBC, has hacked the system to make it more efficient, the e-mail never got through!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    69. Grumpy Old Man
    ' ""Hacking" means to reassemble a system to produce a different or superior result."
    No, no it doesn't. I think the word you are looking for is Modding. '

    Spot on!
    You would have though the the BBC would have asked their own IT department for the clarification.


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