Hacked-on! - Hacking, curiosity and innovation

The buzz-word in our ever innovative and creative spaces appears to be “Hack” - that crazy process of dismantling something so as to improve on it in a rapid way! It is even being applied to such abstract spheres as the liberal arts and especially in the areas of leadership and organisational development.

Over-used and barely understood, is it a word to adopt or fear? Let’s unpack it and separate the useful from the obstructive.

Axe hacking
Axe hacking

What is hacking?

Every one of us can sense the gaps between where we are and where we would like to be in many aspects of our lives. We all know that big parts of our current systems are broken. There is a yawning chasm between the way things have always been done and considered, and what we should be doing right now.

Mike Myatt, in HackingLeadership,defines hacking in a way that is helpful for innovation in all businesses:

To discover an alternate path and skillful tricks, shortcuts and workarounds, breaking the code, deciphering complexity, influencing outcomes, acquiring access, creating innovative customizations to existing/outdated methodologies.”  

So, he is not driving at the quick-and-dirty, work-around, fix-it-for-now, short-cut methods that the word hacking often engenders. He is calling us and charging us to be curious, to get out of our own way.

He also describes a serious flaw (one which I see all too often) in the leadership of many organisations - confusing ideas with innovation. Don’t do that. Innovation means ideas taken through to solutions. If only there were a way to avoid the pitfall...

Curiosity and innovation

The best experimenters have cultivated an unusual way of adapting to their demonstrably limited powers of prediction: They’re humbled. But they make their humility empowering. They make a virtue of their fallibility - humility invites data-driven exploration and innovation.

How so? Successful innovators have the courage of their curiosity. They run experiments not because they can confidently predict what the outcomes will be — but precisely because they can’t. They want to learn from — and with — their customers/clients/staff. So they literally and figuratively experiment with customer-centricity, client-centricity, staff-centricity.

So curiosity is both a symptom and a means to get out of our own way. There’s a deep cultural link here. David Foster Wallace, speaking to the 2005 class at Kenyon College (published as This is Water), argues that we are inherently self-centered (because the world we experience is in front and behind us, above and below us, and it is immediate). It is only through the exercise of our curiosity about others that we can free ourselves from our hard-wired self-obsession. We should be curious about others not just because it is virtuous, but because it’s also a coping mechanism of the routine, petty frustration of day-to-day life.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Picking up on the zeitgeist (I wonder if he had read DFW?), Ian Leslie explains in Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it:

“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been under way for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other. Other animals don’t share or store their knowledge like we do. Orangutans do not reflect on the history of the orangutan; London’s pigeons have not adopted ideas on navigation from pigeons in Rio de Janeiro. We should all feel privileged to have access to a deep well of species memory. As comedian Stephen Fry suggests, it’s foolish not to take advantage of it.”

What curiosity do we need?

People and businesses need to work out what curiosity to pick up on, foster and adopt. This is a process that requires imagination, fine tuning and patience.


Let’s start with the road map. Leslie defines types of curiosity as follows

  • Diversivecuriosity is attraction to novelty. It’s what encourages us to explore new places, people and things. There is no method or process. This curiosity is just the beginning.
  • Epistemiccuriosity is a deeper quest for knowledge. It “represents the deepening of a simple seeking of newness into a directed attempt to build understanding. It’s what happens when diversive curiosity grows up.” This kind of curiosity requires effort. It’s hard work, but also more rewarding.
  • Empathiccuriosity is puttingyourselfin another person’s shoes, curious about their thoughts and feelings. “Diversive curiosity might make you wonder what a person does for a living; empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they do it.” All pretty handy when thinking about your employees and your consumer!

The next step is to move from this road map to incorporating curiosity into the business environment. How do we combine the need for function and outputs with the development of an idea over time, with iteration?

Be a thinkerer

There are indicators for how we can make this work.  It requires hard work and persistence, but ultimately pays off.  Leslie created the term “thinkerer,” by mixing “think” and “tinker,” to mean

a style of cognitive investigation that mixes the concrete and the abstract, toggling between the details and the big picture, zooming out to see the wood and back in again to examine the bark on the tree.

A thinkerer thinks and does; analyzes and manufactures. According to Leslie, both Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs were thinkerers. They had big ideas, and they focused on the implementation of those ideas. They also focused on the minute, the nitty gritty.


As Jobs said, “…there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.”

So it can be done and, as the Apple experience shows, can really pay off. This is difficult in contemporary culture, with the glossing-over encouraged by the obsession with speed. Looking to Leslie again:

The Web allows us to skim and skip along the top line of everything, scooping out the gist without delving into details. Unless we make an effort to be thinkerers — to sweat the small stuff while thinking big, to get interested in processes and outcomes, tiny details and grand visions, we’ll never recapture the spirit of the age of Franklin.

Forage like a foxhog

Who is going to get you to the next level? Who is capable of this creative persistence? Consider the Foxhog.

In the words of the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox evades predators via a variety of techniques while the hedgehog adopts one trusted technique (hunkering down and relying on its spikes to thwart a predator).


The thinkers that are best positioned to thrive today and in the future are likely a hybrid of the fox and the hedgehog: the foxhog. You need to be specialized in one or two subject areas (what are knowns as SMEs, or subject matter experts) but also to be a voracious consumer of knowledge from other fields. In short, combine breadth and depth into your skill set.

But beware, there is a caveat.

Leading researchers, such as Daniel Kahneman, who received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and psychologist Philip E. Tetlock, have persuasively demonstrated that “experts” are particularly prone to predictive overconfidence. Organizations may be confident they know their customers, but they’re very likely to be overconfident.

So how does business resolve the complex relationship between the confidence in expertise built on big-data and what digital marketing and analytics expert Avinash Kaushik once wrote in his blog Occam’s Razor that “80% of the time you/we are wrong about what a customer wants.

Where next?

As the world continues to evolve, so must our business acumen. Businesses must learn to hack time-tested business principles to make them more relevant, practical, and effective. Businesses must stop holding on to false truths held as real, and lead in new and different ways.

Internally and externally businesses must spend more time exploring what they don’t know rather than waxing eloquent about what they do know. They must seek out, work with, test and adopt diverse (even dissenting) opinions in search of what’s right rather than being concerned about who gets the credit for being right.

They will need to be curious about being curious.

David Best 3 Crop
David Best 3 Crop