Stupid Policies Holding You Back? 4 Tips for Hacking Work

Last Updated Oct 5, 2010 5:38 PM EDT

I'm not a big one for breaking rules. In fact, I'm the guy that used to remind the teacher when she didn't give us our homework assignments, so I don't take straying from the way things should be done lightly. But, as our founding fathers pointed out so eloquently, there comes a time in the course of human (or business) events when you just can't take it any more (yes, I'm talking to you marketing department that won't let us pare down your slide decks even when our customers go into fetal positions begging us to stop) and have to go rogue.

Because I'm such a wuss when it comes to going against the established order of things, I was delighted to come across Bill Jensen and Josh Klein's book, "Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results." Not only did I realize I'm not alone, but "Work Hacker" has an aura of Silicon Valley, Web 2.whatever cool that good old "Rule Breaker" just doesn't have.

According to the book, "hacking" is just another word for finding the shortcut or work-around that makes a particular task easier, more efficient or just plain better. Working on your home Internet connection instead of using the darned VPN is an example, (not that any of us would ever do such a thing because that would be really, really wrong). But when should you respect rules and when should they be obeyed? And why does working remotely make hacking easier to do?

Jensen and Klein lay out some common sense guidelines for when it's time to take up arms against foolishness and come up with another way to do something:

  1. Select the three things that drive you the most crazy. You know the enemy: stupid rules, lack of common sense, and "Because I say so." Which three pain-in-the-ass tools, rules, and processes are the biggest drain on your personal productivity? You have to prioritize. you don't want to be a renegade over everything. Pick your shots.
  2. Learn a little more about each one. Knee-jerk reactions aren't always smart ones. Rules and processes got there for a reason (believe it or not). What don't you know about how that form or process or tool works? Why do others insist you do things that way? Who or what would be affected if you hacked a work-around?
  3. For your first hack, keep it simple. Select your first hack for how easy it is to create. Most people should attempt more difficult hacks only with the help of a team or someone with some hacking experience. If someone on your team is the right combination of smart and lazy, team up with them.
  4. Start with the end in mind: define success. How will your hack change: Your workload? Your stress or frustration? Your productivity? How you spend your time? Remember that a hack isn't simply not doing a task (although it might come to that) but achieving the same results in an easier way. Your boss will still expect some kind of output.
Okay, so why is this easier to do when you work remotely? After reading the book I can think of three reasons:
  • You're on your own, and necessity is the mother of invention. If you're not in a location with dedicated IT help, a library of manuals or people you can call on, you have to create the solution yourself. Many a brilliant hack comes from the combination of looming deadlines and quiet desperation.
  • Remote workers tend to be judged more on outcomes than activity. Because of the nature of remote work, managers can't observe everything they do. They tend to look for positive outcomes: If it works, don't question it. (This attitude, by the way, is something every worker and their manager should learn regardless of whether you're working remotely or not.)
  • Who's going to rat you out? When you work away from your coworkers, no one can see you try things to make your life simpler. Not like that weasel in the next cubicle who can't wait to tell everyone how you're "not following protocol". After all, if he has to mindlessly adhere to the status quo, why shouldn't everyone?
This isn't a call for anarchy in the streets, but what is going on in your team that could be done easier/faster/better? I'll lay odds someone is already doing it. All you need to do is ask. Then let everyone else in on the secret. Then it goes from "broken rule" to "best practice" and who doesn't love those?

Find out more about Hacking Work here.
Photo by flickr user Don Hankins CC 2.0