Greentarget recently participated in two days of training on how to address a problem from different, unique ways. Andrew Benedict-Nelson led this training and took some time to talk about the lessons learned and why it’s important to “think like a hacker.” Andrew is a director at Insight Labs, a humanitarian foundation that convenes the smartest, most influential people to tackle the world’s toughest problems.
Why should people attack a problem or an issue from a hacker’s perspective?
Insight Labs has been going in and out of different organizations and we see some of the common problems that people who are running organizations, as well as those who are doing the daily work, are facing. The main questions we deal with are about creativity, innovation, problem solving and dealing with change. They need a way of talking about innovation but they don’t seem to have a good base to begin with. They tend to pitch to one extreme or another. They either go to the creative side where there are no rules or they go way too far to the analytical side. Hacking is a happy medium between the two. A hacker, by definition, is working in a system of rules but using those rules in creative and unexpected ways. All the principles we talked about in the workshop are versions of that.
If you think way back in history to the Middle Ages, when people thought of their jobs they thought of them entirely in terms of order. If you were a peasant or a knight you would have been expected to follow certain rules your entire life. That is not so foreign to us. Now we’re in a world — and it’s not every day but at some point in our life — where you know you are going to face some form of disruption. This training gives people a way of coping with that. It isn’t just a “we’ll see what happens” approach. We give them a framework to think about how to thrive in a world where disruption is pretty common.
During the recent Greentarget training, you described several different categories of hacks. Briefly describe why those categories are so important.
We divided the hacks that we’re teaching into skills and strategies. Skills are activities and actions that most people have done in their lives. Most people have had a creative response to a constraint in their lives. Most of these are things people already are capable of thinking but don’t realize they are doing. The second class we’re calling “strategies.” This is the stuff that works so well that it changes everything. It allows you to really get in front of disruption to your industry. If you change the categories of reality, we’re really talking about a whole different world. It’s realizing that patterns exist that relate to different things that are not obvious at first.
Which one is your favorite category? Why?
The default answer is when you’re able to overturn a big assumption; when you come up with a hack so great that it changes all of the rules. We teach that under the category of “paradigm.” Overturning an assumption like that is always the most satisfying thing to do. As long you’re prepared for it, it brings the biggest rewards — especially if you get out in front of it before everyone else.
The hack that has been most useful in own my life is “testing.” It’s thinking of opportunities in your life to do a trial version of something. To learn from a failure in a way that really makes it constructive for you. Healthcare.gov is one example. It’s a complex situation, but it now appears as if most of the technical issues are going to be resolved. They resolved them by exposing the system to real users, which should have happened before they launched. There is a sort of knee-jerk opinion that you can’t test a product coming from the public sector. But that’s not true at all —you could have done something like Google does by releasing the product in waves.
But what’s so neat about the idea of prototyping is that you can apply it retroactively. Even though the first few months of the site weren’t designed to be a prototype, we can now look back at them and learn a lot about how you create a Web portal for a new government service. I think that’s a real hopeful and constructive way to look at past failures.
If done right, how can this process change how we address a problem?
The most satisfying moment is when we actually apply this stuff. It has the potential to not just solve the problem in front of you but to reconfigure an organization’s hierarchy. The person we thought wasn’t the greatest employee is suddenly essential. I think that is really rewarding not just for individuals but for organizations. Every one of these hacks has that potential in it to reconfigure an organization. I think about my friends who have really made careers in social media. They were interns who knew how to use Twitter and who pulled off a few amazing things and are now industry leaders. If you can teach people how to be innovative in a regular way, you give them a fallback. Even if their whole industry disappears, they’re not without resources. That’s when people start doing stupid things; when they really feel like they have no options. A hacking mentality helps save them from those desperate situations — in that way, it has the potential to make everyone’s lives better.