The first of three articles discussing the proliferation of hacking culture and its implications for large organisations

Hack this, hack that 

‘Hacking’ is a difficult term to pin down. From a means of illegally accessing voicemails, to shorthand for infiltrating high-security state apparatus, hacking is a word that has attracted a variety of negative associations.

But I’d like to discuss one of its more positive incarnations: namely hacking as an approach to innovation. In this context the term has come to be associated with some specific behaviours:

  • Working at speed: getting a real product out there as fast as possible, because the best laid business plans always change
  • Doing not talking: making something tangible, not discussing hypotheticals
  • Failing fast: improving your product rapidly based on real world feedback, not theory

Hacking goes mainstream

Like many good ideas, hacking started at the fringes of culture; a group of people setting out to change the world from outside of the system. But over the last few decades the success of Silicon Valley businesses who are built around the ‘hacker culture’ (e.g. Google) has alerted the wider commercial world to the promise of hacking

Now traditional companies like McDonald’s are staging hackathons, while businesses across the spectrum are looking to hire the best ‘growth hackers’.

The very system the early hackers were deliberately circumventing is now integrating hacking into ‘business as usual’.

Surely the growth of hacking culture is a good thing? Yes and no. Putting aside the groans of a community that have seen their culture ‘go mainstream’, there are also some practical reasons to question hack evangelism.

While there is no doubt that some organisations will benefit from adopting the hacker culture straight away, it won’t fit so well with others.
The question is not so much whether to adopt the hacking approach, but where, when and why?

In the Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver pointed out the difference between Hedgehogs and Foxes. Hedgehogs are people who have a single theory they use to explain the world. Foxes are less ideological in their outlook – they borrow from different theories depending on what it is they are trying to explain.

Hacking isn’t a silver bullet

Predictably, the same is true with hacking. It’s a useful approach, but we should avoid seeing it as a silver bullet, guaranteed to instil the entrepreneurial dynamism of a tech start-up into every organisation it touches.

  • Your speed is framed by your product: most businesses still make physical products, not digital ones. Many of these products are very difficult to ‘hack’ meaningfully without significant investment. For these organisations it’s worth spending time thinking carefully where to focus before unleashing the hacker ethos.
  • Your ability to do not talk is framed by your skillset: it’s easy to foster a hacker culture if your organisation is filled with engineers, designers and developers – not so much if you’re long on analysts, accountants and administrators. The skill here is to reframe ‘doing’ within the skills that are available, or bring them in from outside.
  • Your capacity to fail fast is framed by what’s at stake: a business may be risk averse because it operates in a highly regulated industry or because it has a (quite normal) intolerance of failure. For such a business a top down dictate to ‘fail fast’ won’t have an impact, unless a safe, walled environment for failure is created first.

Having run over 50 hacking projects for clients big and small, our experience suggests the answer is to experiment with hacks: testing how each organisation can most benefit from hacker culture. In our experience all organisations can benefit, but do so in different ways.