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How to Hack Management: A Practical Guide to High-Impact Disruption and Storytelling

by Polly LaBarre on June 15, 2011


polly-labarre's picture

How to Hack Management: A Practical Guide to High-Impact Disruption and Storytelling

With the Management 2.0 Challenge, we're inviting progressive thinkers and radical doers of all stripes to share a Hack (a disruptive idea, radical fix, or experimental design) or a Story (a real-world case study of a single practice, an initiative, or a broad-based transformation) that illustrates how the principles and tools of the Web can help to overcome the limits of conventional management and help create Management 2.0.

When it comes to making an impact and accelerating change, it turns out that the how is as important as the what. That goes for both how you design a disruptive initiative--and how you tell your story. To guide M-Prize participants and would-be management innovators alike, here are a set of high-level principles (and some low-to-the-ground tips) that just might increase your chances of success when it comes to making an impact and impressing the judges and your peers in the M-Prize.

Is it DEEP?

As you design your hack or start to unpack your innovation story, the first question to ask yourself is: does it tackle a root cause or a deeply embedded pathology of organizations? You have to commit to a big problem to make a big impact. Some ways in to the truly juicy challenges:

  • Look for the intractable trade-offs. Can you turn an organizational "either/or"--freedom or discipline, short-term earnings obsession or investment in and exploration of new ideas, scale or agility--into a transformational "and"?
  • Turn an organizational "can't do" into a "can do." Have you ever said (or thought), "That could never happen in our organization," when confronted by an inspiring tale of transformation or positive change? Now imagine how it might.

That's what a team of management innovators did in their MBA M-Prize-winning hack, Late Night Pizza: Extending Hackathons Beyond Technology. David Roth and his teammates were frustrated by the endemic prioritization of short-term priorities at the expense of exploring, developing, and investing in new ideas. They designed a mechanism (borrowing from the world of software development and open-source innovation) to create a tangible, practical, and boundary-pushing workaround.

  • Define the dogma. Root out and name the assumptions and orthodoxies so entrenched they disappear even as they surround us, like century-old wallpaper. What are the beliefs that we mistake for natural laws? Such as "it takes a burning platform to provoke real change" or "you can't manage without managers" or "people serve the organization" or "senior executives set strategy."

Phillippe Beaudette and Eugene Eric Kim took on that last corrosive assumption in their story Strategic Planning the Wikimedia way: Bottom-up and Oustide-in, which is a contender for the current Management 2.0 Challenge. The planning team at Wikimedia (the foundation that supports Wikipedia and a host of other "wiki" projects) flipped the convention from the start: instead of proceeding on the belief that strategic planning is an activity reserved for the organizational elite (and highly paid consultants), they designed a process built on the notion that the best ideas and guidance would come from Wikimedia's 70,000 volunteers.

Is it BOLD?

It's nearly impossible to overstate the gravity of the status quo. Cutting through rules, defanging the powers-that-be, wading through the sludge of bureaucracy, and detoxing the pervasive culture of fear and mistrust in our organizations takes real intestinal fortitude. "Modern" management may have generated vast prosperity, but is has also dulled the imagination and dampened the spirit of too many creative individuals.

What we need now is fresh air and genuinely original approaches to the most fundamental organizational processes: how opportunities get identified, how decisions get made, how resources get allocated, how power gets exercised, how tasks, work, and roles get assigned, how performance gets measured, and how rewards get shared, just to name a few.

One place to start: the fringe. The future doesn't unfold top-down or center-out so much as outside-in. That's why we're always on the hunt for the positive deviants--the pioneers experimenting at the edges and inventing the future in every field. One of the most effective ways to ignite your own imagination to dream up new possibilities is to spend time with people not like you--and in situations that fall far outside your comfort zone.

Some of the best management innovations borrow from unrelated realms: Lexus car dealerships modeled on the Apple Genius Bar or the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital's four-star hotel experience. Almost all successful management innovation looks to new principles--biological systems, democracy, markets, and, of course, the Web--to bypass the current operating model. The Management 2.0 challenge explicitly asks participants to leverage the deep principles of the Web--such as freedom, openness, transparency, meritocracy, experimentation--to overcome the limits of conventional management.

Some of the boldest experiments we've seen on the MIX have grown out of the realization that there's literally "nothing to copy" (as was the case with software company Atlassian's original and energizing approach to performance reviews) or a complete flip of convention (as Owen Buckwell demonstrates in his courageous transformation of a public housing authority to serve the tenants and the people who do the work--rather than the boss and government-set targets).

When it comes to writing up your Story or Hack, the boldness mantra holds. Don't be afraid to tell your story and describe the problem you've tackled in the starkest, most emphatic terms.

Is it HUMAN?

As with most problem solving, the most successful approaches to management innovation are human-centric. After all, the central problem with our organizations is that they are fundamentally unfit for human beings. The question to keep in mind is how does this change life inside the organization for people at every level? What's the before and after picture in real, human terms?

When it comes to telling the story of management innovation, the biggest mistake is to sanitize the false starts, dead ends, and inevitable twists and turns. That's not storytelling--it's PR. And, of course, the most instructive and inspiring element of an innovation story is the real, in-the-trenches, messy unfolding of the journey.

What your peers (and the judges) are looking for is a vivid, human-centered storyline that takes us along for the ride: What frustrations triggered this experiment? Who was involved? How did your process unfold? How does the thing actually work? What real barriers, stuck-points, moments of emotion did you experience? How does this affect the working life of real people in the organization? Let us hear from them: tell stories within the story, offer up mini-vignettes that illustrate the before and after, share quotes from some of the key players.

That's what David Choe did with his epic, three-part story How to Start a Movement in Your Company--and that's probably why he generated such a robust conversation with hundreds of ratings and comments.

One practical tip here: be sure to tell your story in the first or second person (I/we) rather than in the third person and passive tense. Skip the acronyms and business jargon and tell the story in your most authentic, idiosyncratic language. The more nuance, texture, and local color--the better. Bonus points for being funny!

Is it CLEAR?

The more focused, specific, and detailed your contribution, the better. This goes for writing up a hack or a story as well as designing an experiment inside your organization.

Define the specific management challenge you're tackling, set the stage (what's the macro and micro context), describe what triggered your idea, introduce the key characters, unpack the mechanics of your solution, tell the story of how your initiative unfolded, explain how your approach has changed or is changing a management process or orthodoxy. (And, if you're using the MIX contribution templates, try to follow them as closely as possible and check out the "quick tips" every step of the way.)

Srinivas Koushik's M-Prize entry, Building the Social Web into the Fabric of the Organization, is a good model of clarity and detail. When it comes to hacks, sometimes the best experimental design has the narrowest focus. For example, it's one thing to take on the challenge of making organizations more collaborative and another to craft an experiment for promoting, measuring, and rewarding what Andrew McAfee calls "enterprise helpfulness." Or, instead of broadly tackling the issue of "transparency," what about imagining a radical approach to email communication?

Quick tip: Clear doesn't mean colorless. The more specific and punchy your contribution is, the better. Try setting the tone with your title, as with this new M-Prize entry, My new favorite color is transparent." I'm still waiting for someone to contribute a story (or a hack) to the tune of, "Dude, Where's My Boss? How we Banished Titles, Offices, and Flipped the Pyramid."


Innovation is a social process: without brilliant builds, promising ideas often remain pipe dreams. It takes a rich mix of ideas, points of view, and mashed-up insight to go from brainstorm to making a real dent in the world.

That means you have to be willing to share your ideas when they're half-baked, happy to give your thinking away "for free," and open to comments and builds from your peers. Collaborative innovation requires a magical mix of confidence and humility: the conviction and passion to promote your vision of change along with genuine humility and the understanding that your idea is never "done" and can always be improved upon by others. Innovation is an ever-evolving story. If you ever get to thinking your creation is fully cooked, you just might be.

The MIX is teeming with examples of this kind of generosity and humility--most obvious in the "insights" and "lessons learned" portion of so many stories. Doug Solomon's story about IDEO's "Tube" offers up specific and truly useful design principles for building an internal platform for collaboration, while Ross Smith's Organizational Trust 2.0: 42projects lays out a set of guiding principles for anyone who aspires to change the system from within the ranks of an organization.

Just as important, we know we don't have the perfect formula for supporting and advancing the ideas of management innovators around the world. We not only want to hear your stories and ideas about how to hack management—we want to know how you'd hack us! Let us know what we could be doing better or differently in the comments.

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bill-veltrop's picture

Polly, thanks ever-so-much for bringing this 2011 article to our attention. I'm deeply convinced of the pre-eminent importance of 'story' in helping us break free from the gravitational pull of our dominant organizing paradigm. Those of us who have been been working with the psychological, strategic and technological challenges of achieving that shift aren't usually the most effective storytellers. We need all the help we can get. Thus the deep appreciation.

I'm also impressed with the overall design of the MIX challenges. It's obvious to me that a lot of creative thought went into its formulation. One of our 'design principles for generative initiatives' is to design for 'multiplying benefits.' You and your mischief-making community have certainly done that.



maria-paula-oliveira's picture

great article. It really both inspired me and guided me through improvements I'm working on my story

Hope to accomplish a great story!


frederic-jleconte's picture
Thank you Polly for this helping material. I'm 100% in sync.
The 5 points are key guidelines.
"Deep", "Clear" and "Human" is the trio I try to tackle first and jazz up whenever possible with replying to comments.
Very impressive efforts to overcome the actual trend of "global thinking" collateral damages, i.e difficulty to test and pionner innovative thinking. 
It is harder  and more demanding because global, but it is a call for higher collaborative work.
I share the same appetite for transparent color.
The LOFT has been defined as the way to transmit light (as open architecture), therefore transparency is a founding value for the community.
dan-oestreich's picture
Thanks, Polly, this is excellent.  Loved this part:
That means you have to be willing to share your ideas when they're half-baked, happy to give your thinking away "for free," and open to comments and builds from your peers. Collaborative innovation requires a magical mix of confidence and humility: the conviction and passion to promote your vision of change along with genuine humility and the understanding that your idea is never "done" and can always be improved upon by others. Innovation is an ever-evolving story. If you ever get to thinking your creation is fully cooked, you just might be.

The whole article is very helpful.
Dan Oestreich
robert-richman's picture
Great sum-up Polly.  Thank you.  
I love what you're up to.