My friend Jim is a hacker. Not the kind of hacker who sits at a computer trying to break into highly classified computer systems – that’s a highly simplistic portrayal. No, he’s the kind of hacker who approaches many of the aspects in his life with a mindset that is critical, analytical and creative. And while the hacker manifesto will serve you well if you’ve got a bent for exploring off-limit networks on the internet, it’s an approach you can bring into all sorts of other areas of the world – whether it be technology, your home life or presumably organizational culture.
Recently, I’ve started hanging out at Foulab, the Montreal hacker space, where different Montreal hackers get together to learn from each other and collaborate on all sorts of technological projects – recently, folks were learning to use a 3-D etcher. A combination stereo-system-bicycle was being built. Workshops on playing with micro-controllers were being organized. One term that frequently comes up at the hacker space is repurposing.
Repurposing is about challenging the need for new stuff. It is about taking something that is old, frequently obsolete, and giving it new life – giving it a purpose that it often wasn’t initially thought to have. Right now, I’m interested in repurposing an old exercise bike and miscellaneous discarded auto parts to build a bicycle-powered generator that I can use to cut down on my energy bills while staying in and getting some home exercise in the winter. My hacker friend Jim often invokes repurposing in his home life, when he finds, disassembles and gives new purpose to stuff he comes across – whether it’s drawers made into plant holders or the bicycle bell that his son Roger took apart to make new sounds with.
What would organizational repurposing look like? Many of the standard organizational models that we rely on (corporations, the educational system, etc.) have designs that are clearly out of date, and they cause us more problems than they’re worth – from environmental decay to individual burnout. They could certainly do with a little repurposing. Just like for repurposing an item, repurposing an organization starts with acknowledging the need that isn’t met and the inherent flaws of the system. Once we’ve done that, we need to map it and understand how the individual pieces are connected. Just like an old 486 computer is made from a number of parts, so is an organization made up of a number of stakeholders and structures, all of which could presumably be interconnected in bold new ways. The end result can often be something completely unexpected and exciting.
It doesn’t need to be complicated… For instance, Foulab’s repurposed its organizational minutes in a neat way by creating a wiki that’s used to catalogue all meeting minutes and decisions as well as pretty much anything else that happens there – including current projects being worked on – creating a one-stop shop for anything having to do with the lab. Another aspect of its culture that’s worth noting is their active challenging of the words “we should…” (as in – we should buy a new water cooler, we should contact Bell about the extra fees on the bill, etc.). When “we should” gets brought up, it’s usually contested. Unless a more active approach to the issue at hand is then proposed (“I will do this…”), it stays off the table. Simple enough.
We all deserve to live the unexpected and exciting in our organizations. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to learning how to build neat stuff.