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'Benevolent hacking' is the new normal in the workplace

By Bill Jensen and Josh Klein, Special to CNN
Bill Jensen (left) and Josh Klein
Bill Jensen (left) and Josh Klein
  • Jensen and Klein: Stupid rules make everyone work harder, not smarter
  • They say workarounds are extremely common and happening everywhere
  • "Benevolently hacking" your work is the new workplace normal, they say
  • They argue that this ultimately benefits you and your company

Editor's note: Bill Jensen and Josh Klein are the authors of "Hacking Work," which Harvard Business Review named one of the Top 10 Breakthrough Ideas of 2010. Jensen is CEO of the Jensen Group and author of best-selling business book "Simplicity." Klein is CEO of H4X Industries, which delivers insights on technology innovation strategy.

(CNN) -- "Geez, my company is wasting so much of my time and energy."

"Why don't you hack some workarounds? Work smarter?"

"Ohhhhh no, I couldn't. That's bad. Especially in this tough economy. Following the rules and keeping my nose clean is the only way I'll survive."

"Really? What if they're stupid rules? What if those company-supplied rules, tools and procedures aren't well-considered, or only benefited The Man, and not you or your teammates."

"Well, I, uh...That is...Ummm."

Welcome to the new normal: hacking one's work.

Between one-third to two-thirds of your teammates are currently working smarter by working around corporate systems.

There. We said it. An underground truth is finally out. Even during the toughest of economic times, your teammates are hacking benevolently: they're working around stupid rules that make everyone work harder, not smarter.

Some examples we found:

Raveena, a corporate trainer who confides to her trainees that because of budget constraints, much of what she provides "sucks." So she sends them to free online sources outside of the company. After testing them on what they learned, she validates their certificates in required courses they never attended.

Even during the toughest of economic times, your teammates are hacking benevolently: they're working around stupid rules that make everyone work harder, not smarter.
--Bill Jensen and Josh Klein, authors of "Hacking Work"

Matt realized he wasn't going to stay at his company long enough to benefit from how his company evaluated his work. So he Googled "performance assessment," rewrote his, and got HR to rework their approach to meet his needs, not just theirs.

David said, "At GE, data is so centralized and access to it so limited, that it feels like the Kremlin. But to do my job properly, I need data that isn't easily available. So I just wrote a program that will give us everything we need with a push of a button instead of weeks of asking many managers for it. This simple workaround might even help the company clean house elsewhere during cost-reductions, and leave my department alone."

These are not isolated, rogue incidents. When we did the research for our book, "Hacking Work," we uncovered all sorts of underground activities like these.

After several years of clandestine meetings with thousands of people (under promise of anonymity), we found that these kind of workarounds are extremely common and happening everywhere. And as long as rules, tools and procedures are corporate-centered and not worker-centered -- meaning they're designed to help the company succeed, but not necessarily to help you to do your best -- these kinds of workarounds are only going to increase.

Fear the new normal? Get over it.

Yeah, this shift requires getting past certain fears. Time to get over that.

Two great resources we'd recommend are a pair of TEDx talks. Turning Fear Into Fuel by Jonathan Fields addresses how to turn fear from a source of anxiety into fuel for action and achievement. Fear and Permission by Chris Guillebeau talks about "writing your own permission slip," and that "a lot of us live our lives out of what fear of other people think. We're waiting for someone to give us permission to live our lives."

If you're waiting for permission to benevolently hack your work -- in ways that will ultimately benefit your company, your customers, your team and yourself -- it's time to stop waiting!

What to do? Start small, keep it simple.

When you're ready, here are some ways to get started:

1. Make it OK. Get comfortable with the idea that some things that are handed to you from on-high might need some tweaking for them to work well.

2. What's obvious to you? No one who designed that rule, tool or procedure knew what you know about solving problems within your daily routine. What obvious flaw is built into what's been handed to you? That's the place to focus.

3. Remember the basics. Presentation skills, expressing yourself well verbally and in writing, being able to work well with others -- these and other basics will be critical as you begin your workaround.

4. Do your homework. Google someone before you meet with them; read their tweets; scan for anything on the area you wish to improve. Knowing what matters to people and to your company is critical before you begin any benevolent hack.

5. Think different. This sounds easy, but isn't. You are a social creature who has been successful by embracing the norms around you. Hacking your work means bending some of those norms and not getting sucked back into them. To do this: Practice flipping things on their head. Take what's good and describe it as bad, and visa versa. Inverting expectations of what should be done is an easy way to examine anything in a new way and can lead to big insights.

You can do this! It's time to write a new permission slip. One that makes the system work for you too, not just the other way around.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill Jensen and Josh Klein.