When disobeying the boss is a good career move

Sat, Sep 25, 2010, 01:00

Is your workplace tied up in silly rules and inefficient procedures? A new book shows you how to ‘hack’ work and make life easier

‘IT’S ALL PART of a growing work-related DIY movement,” says hacker Josh Klein a few hours before he takes to the stage at TedxDublin at the Science Gallery. He is talking about “work hacking”. “It’s like if you came home and your sofa leg was broken. You wouldn’t just leave it there wobbling and do nothing. And yet when we come into work we face bad tools, bad equipment and bad policy, and we put up with it every day. But why? That’s madness.”

New Yorker Klein and Bill Jensen, a “change consultant”, are the authors of a new book, Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results, which, in video-game parlance, exposes the cheat codes for employees. The term “hacking” might conjure up images of the teenage cybercriminals, but this is about ordinary people finding often low-tech solutions to everyday work problems, by bending or breaking company rules.

The authors are encouraging workers to look around the workplace, identify a better way of doing things and implement change, tossing long-standing company edicts and silly office procedure out of the window along the way. They claim that the book, named one of Harvard Business Review’s 10 breakthrough ideas for this year, might just “save business from itself, one bad act at a time”.

“The idea is that once employees learn how to hack their work, they get more stuff done in less time which makes them happier and more productive,” he says. “It’s benevolent hacking; we are not encouraging anybody to instigate changes that will cause harm.”

Chances are, you engage in a bit of work hacking yourself. Say your company bans the use of a certain video-sharing website, but the site cuts in half the time it takes to make crucial presentations, so you ignore the rule and use it anyway. Or maybe the boss is a bit too fond of countless unproductive meetings, so you negotiate with like-minded colleagues and find a strategy that reduces the need for most of them.

The book gives an example of two employees in an insurance company whose salary grade didn’t entitle them to locks on their doors. Two hours of their working day were wasted because they had to file away confidential documents every evening and morning. Acting against official company policy, their manager decided to put locks on the doors, saving the company 10 man-hours a week.

Mostly it’s common sense. Earlier this week Klein went to give a talk at the Facebook office in Dublin, where a female employee told him that one of the tools she used was too slow for the job she needed it to do.

“I advised her to start counting how much longer it took her to do the job, compare it to another tool, and then take the results to her boss, who will probably be delighted to know there was a faster alternative,” he says.

At a time when most people feel lucky even to have a job, it’s understandable if some will be reluctant to risk getting fired just to grease the corporate cogs.

“I understand that fear,” says Klein. “But these days employees have more power and opportunity than ever before. They have the use of all the tools that are freely available online, they have broader networks, more resources. Taking these risks is not just good for them, it’s good for the company because they are provoking innovation.”

Listening to employees is a strategy that has been employed by some of the world’s top companies such as Google, whose “20 per cent rule” allows engineers to spend one day a week on pet projects that are not necessarily in their job description. This was how Gmail came about.

The enemies of the work hacker are stupid rules, a lack of common sense and the because-I- say-so mentality. “Start with the rules or processes which are the biggest drain on your productivity – work from there,” says Klein.

A certain amount of audacity is required, and work hacking is not for everyone. “Traditionally, large companies have operated from a position where everybody is just expected to do what they are told. So employees take for granted that they have to just suffer through these processes when in fact there is always a way to work around them,” he says. “A bad boss will take a good idea from an employer and tell them no, because they didn’t come up with it. In that case, we recommend hacking the system. Eventually the boss is going to be replaced. It’s a question of whether they take the company and your job down with it.”

Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Resultsby Bill Jensen and Josh Klein is published by Penguin; hackingwork.com