Hacking Work: Redesigning a Bad System

Bill Jensen and Josh Klein's new book, "Hacking Work" is about righteous rule-breaking. Here, the authors explain how one bus company had a broken system and how a fix for it emerged.

Sometimes work systems are just badly designed. Speaking more plainly: For most of us, the design of work sucks. In those cases it may make the most sense to simply break them, for the benefit of everybody.

One manager we know had occasion to do this recently when she bought a bus ticket for a nearby conference from an operator specializing in short-hauls and events. She figured that, rather than driving, she could use the time to get lots of work done.

The bus operator had a standard price, but also offered an extremely inflated "Gold Membership" price that was patently ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was the fact that 99% of the riders were students who were clearly not looking for Gold Membership benefits, including emailed notifications about bus schedules.

But it got worse. When she got to the pickup point she discovered that the operator had multiple buses to multiple destinations all picking people up at the same spot, resulting in a big meandering crowd with many lines filled with aggravated riders, as well as frustrated drivers. What's more, once a bus *did* arrive the bus drivers would stand in front of the bus and start hollering out codes printed on the purchase receipts that the riders were supposed to use to suddenly rearrange themselves. Because the riders received a confirmation code with their purchase--and tickets were only sold online--many of them hadn't printed out the full receipt, and only had the code. A situation begging to be hacked!

She noticed that the first thing the drivers asked for was Gold Members. It turns out that one feature of membership (that was not mentioned on their site) was getting a prized first-in-line position.

So she asked one of the bus drivers how they knew if someone was a Gold Member or not, and was told that their confirmation code always started with the letter "A." She nodded happily and went back to her long line, which was full of students, all of who, like her, had only their confirmation code written on their phones.

After a short flurry of conversation across the line, she was first among those to step up when "Gold Members only ... " was called. She displayed her newly amended purchase code on her smart phone, and got on the bus. Then the next person in line did the same thing. Then the next. And the next. Halfway through the bus driver threw up his arms and everyone filed directly into the bus with the broken system forgotten.

On the way out of the bus after the trip she asked what the driver thought about the Gold Membership. "It's bullshit," the driver told her. He confessed, "I wish every line-up worked like today's--it's a lot faster."

That's a good hack.

Bill Jensen and Josh Klein released Hacking Work through Portfolio Penguin on Sept. 23--a book on how and why to break the rules to create more success for you, your customers, and your company.

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