Hacking Your Way to an Agile Organization (Speaking Notes)

(Credit: Microsoft Clip Art Gallery)
On Monday, I gave a presentation to a room full of executives and up-and-comers about becoming more agile. Now before you roll your eyes, don't worry: it was riffing off my "Hacking is a Mindset, not a Skillset" talks from earlier this year. My point was that the concept of an "agile organization" means many things to many people, and that the path to agile is by hacking yourself and everything that you do; by changing how you think about your work, approaching it with playful cleverness and infusing a hacking mindset to your day-to-day. Below is my script (genericized  I removed industry-specific terms :) Enjoy!

Hacking Our Way to An Agile Organization

What we’re hearing today is that, as a CIO, you’ll need to promote a culture of innovation within a changing organizational context, an evolving IT landscape and flat budgets. And adopting a nimble, collaborative approach using emerging technologies will be key to continuously improving productivity, and program or service delivery. Really, you don’t even have to wait: we’re dealing with these realities today. So, what can you do to start innovating right now? Well, the message from the conference this year is to become more agile.

Now, ask a few people to define “agile organization” and they’ll use terms like: responsive, open, collaborative, trusting, flexible, web 2.0… I’d even propose adding another word to our collective definition: how about hacking?

Now I don’t mean “hacking” in the Hollywood breaking-into-secret-networks-illegally sense. Let’s be clear: that’s actually “cracking”. No, I mean the original definition of hacking as an act of disruption in the positive sense: the term comes from MIT to describe fun elaborate pranks by the students. The Wikipedia definition of "hacker" contains the following line: "Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful. Activities of playful cleverness can be said to have "hack value."

Ask yourself: when’s the last time you approached your work with “playful cleverness”? And did something with hack value? As leaders, you can encourage (even require!) your teams to approach work differently. Where do you think people would rather work: a place that expected them to do more business with increasingly limited resources? Or a place that told them their job was to find new ways of working through playful cleverness?

Tech companies are great for this. In my tech bubble days, the environment encouraged us to use creative means to solve problems: open work spaces, toys to play with, walls made of whiteboards, even a keg in the cafeteria for Friday chats with the founder. Now, maybe we won’t all be showing up to our offices with Lego or beer tomorrow, but we can begin to transform our organizational cultures if we approach our work in a way that is playful, exciting and meaningful. If we aim to do something with hack value.

So, how do we innovate through playful cleverness? By looking for unexpected ways to make something better.

  • Hack yourself: Redefine barriers as a source of motivation in their own right: instead of being frustrated by “the way things are always done,” challenge yourself to do it differently this time. Use yourself as a guinea pig: Work in a way that is outside your own norm. Challenge yourself to think outside your own box. Do something that scares you. Take a risk.
  • Hack your workspace: make it suit your workstyle (art supplies, toys, blank spaces, whiteboards, room to move, a library, whatever you need). Or better yet, leave it. Grab the equipment from your desk and spontaneously hijack boardrooms for weeks at a time in order to collaborate with your team. Work from home. Work from anywhere, any time. 
  • Hack communications: Stop attaching documents to emails. Find creative ways to share knowledge in your team: Do daily stand-up meetings (time them!), use chat. Use visuals to share data. In the office where I currently work, you'll find whiteboards in common areas, win boards to celebrate team wins, libraries to share resources, outlines/ slides/ diagrams taped up in common team spaces with comment sheets so people can give feedback. We still rely too much on email, but we're trying.
  • Hack your department: We're not Google but we can still innovate. We can be strategically agile: we can identify trends, we can see challenges with the way things are done and change them. If the required changes seem too big and too bold, we can start small: take the opportunity to make a minor tweak to a process and see if you make an improvement: Find creative ways to use existing systems, to produce better outcomes. Take a risk. Propose your ideas: go ahead an include your bold idea in your deliverable. Even if it gets removed in the next draft, at least you planted a seed. And if it doesn’t, you may incite change.
  • Hack silos: Begin and end all projects in collaborative spaces: check them for drafts, lessons learned and other information sources to expedite your progress, ask the Twitters, Google solutions from other government in other countries. Share your learnings organization-wide at project close-out. Crowdsource plans and strategies with internal stakeholders and then test your ideas with counterparts in other organizations. Make internal collaborative tools and sites your default tabs in your web browser and use them every day.
  • Hack your training: If you need to learn a new skill and can’t get the training at work, look for free training resources, meetups or other learning opportunities. Better yet, just do it. Take on projects that stretch your skills and knowledge. Can’t get approval? Do it anyway! Help a colleague with their project in their department. Or form a working group and do it for the whole of the organization.  
  • Hack your career: Figure out how to work horizontally in a vertical environment: take a job in another stream or classification to expand the depth of your knowledge. Find a project you just need to be a part of and go be a part of it.
  • Hack your perspective: Empathize with your user. Find opportunities to be the client, not just the implementer. Go sit with a program team for weeks or months to better understand the challenges they face using systems in their day-to-day work. Take an assignment and see how the other half works and lives: If you work in a program, go try out enterprise-level projects. If you work on enterprise projects, go work in a client branch to really understand how enterprise-level decisions impact internal users. 
  • Hack your network. Become a reverse mentor; teach an executive to use new tools or just chat with them about the realities of working differently. Join groups that work in another discipline or area of interest. Talk to our counterparts outside the organization to find out how they are solving the same problems.
  • Hack your work. Work differently. Every day.  

No single person can transform an organization. We can individually challenge traditional work methods as well as our own assumptions about how things should be done. We can approach our work with playful cleverness and add hack value. We can be more agile; we can look for – and make – small, iterative, incremental improvements to how we work. And over time, these small wins will compound, amounting to significant change in the way the entire organization operates.

I’m sure you can think of a small iterative incremental improvement you can make right now. So go get hacking.