Book review: Hacking Work, by Bill Jensen and Josh Klein

While this book encourages you to think you're smarter than your boss, it ain't necessarily so, says our mystery entrepreneur.

by Secret Diary
Last Updated: 08 Nov 2010

Hacking Work is not, you may be disappointed to learn, about ways to adjust your company's payroll to put another nought on the end of your salary. It is, the authors grandly proclaim, about 'forbidden innovation' - finding ways to get stuff done at work by 'exploiting loopholes and creating work-arounds'. This covers everything from soft hacks, where you make subtle changes to your working relationships, to hard hacks, where you might re-engineer an entire process.

As someone who got so sick of corporate life that I left to start my own business, I thought I'd like this book. Its premise is a compelling one: big companies have a lot of stupid rules, systems and processes which actually make your life more difficult; and, rather than sitting around bitching, you're better off finding a solution, even if it means bending the rules. For any entrepreneur who prides him or herself on solving problems more efficiently than bigger competitors that will definitely ring true.

But somehow the book left me a bit cold. It's partly the all-pervading cheesy Americanism ('There's really one commandment: Be Cool', it says at one point. Pass the bucket). It's partly the slavish promotion of free online resources - some of it sounds like it could have been written by Google's press office. And it's partly that it seems to have been written for people with no attention span whatsoever - every page is broken up by quotes, bullet points, aide-memoires and box-outs. I suppose that's helpful if you're dipping in and out of it (or if you've got ADHD), but if you're trying to read it in chunks, it's incredibly irritating.

Another issue is that the book talks about hacking in a sense that many will find unfamiliar. To most of us, hacking is like that kid in War Games who breaks into the Pentagon's computer and nearly starts World War Three (and gets an unfeasibly attractive girlfriend - yeah, right). However, apparently that is 'black hat' hacking - as opposed to the more benevolent 'white hat' approach, which is all about exposing vulnerabilities in a system to make it better. Judging by the amount of time the authors spend making the distinction, they obviously recognise this as an issue.

But that's not its biggest problem. To me, as a business owner, there's something objectionable about a book that encourages people to change the rules off their own bat, while promoting a puerile 'You against the Man' attitude. As I'm not a man, either literally or figuratively, this kind of argument always winds me up. Besides, what kind of organisation does 'forbid' innovation?

Isn't it just as likely that this brilliant work-around which seems to make your life so much easier makes things more complicated for someone else? I know from bitter experience that sometimes companies have to adopt the system that works best for the largest number of people, even if it doesn't work for everyone. What's to say that the people inventing these 'hacks' actually understand the extent of a problem? Perhaps a two-minute conversation with their manager might give them a bit more insight - but if they listen to Jensen and Klein, they'll have already spent a few weeks on their own solution by this point. In fact, the authors even warn against the dangers of 'Stockholm syndrome', ie sympathising with the bad guy: 'Don't be a victim twice,' they warn. 'Never forget you are the one currently being held hostage.' A bit melodramatic, perhaps?

Now I can't speak for every business owner, but I love it when people come up with great new ideas to make the business more efficient, as they save me time and money.

Generally speaking, there's a reason why things are as they are: thoughtful, non-malevolent people have looked at all the options and decided one of them is best. So, to me, it makes sense to encourage people to make new ideas public as early as possible. That way they can be scrutinised, and problems spotted, before too much time is wasted on them. The idea of there being a semi-underground movement of hackers beavering away behind the scenes just strikes me as a bit silly.

I picked up this book expecting to learn about companies that have found smarter, more effective ways to innovate. But, in the end, it just hacked me off.

Hacking Work: Breaking stupid rules for smart results
Bill Jensen and Josh Klein
Penguin Books/Portfolio £12.99

- The reviewer is a London-based entrepreneur; catch her weekly blog at

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