Highly successful people use this 'hacker mentality,' says Oxford business expert—how to develop it

Headshot of Oxford business and engineering professor Paulo Savaget
Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Paulo Savaget has a tip for anyone trying to get ahead in the workplace: Start thinking like a hacker.

That doesn't mean plotting sinisterly or maliciously. Rather, it means drawing on the unexpected soft skills that hackers bring to the table — developing on-the-fly solutions to a seemingly endless barrage of unsolvable problems, says Savaget, an Oxford University business and engineering professor.

Hacking, when done vindictively and illegally, can have very real — and devastating — consequences. But aspects of a "hacker mentality," like creativity, flexibility, and drive, may be helpful for workplace success, says Savaget, author of the recently published book "The Four Workarounds: Strategies from the World's Scrappiest Organizations for Tackling Complex Problems."

The mindset can particularly help you find paths around roadblocks and see solutions other people don't, Savaget tells CNBC Make It.

Here are his top two pieces of advice for developing those skills.

Embrace 'good enough' solutions

When confronted with a workplace dilemma, you might try to tackle it head-on, looking for a long-term solution that'll eradicate the problem outright. That's troublesome when the dilemma requires a deeper solutions than you have time for, Savaget says.

Sometimes, you just need a quick fix to avoid a bottleneck, which means understanding the power of a "good enough" solution, he adds. A workaround solution isn't meant to solve the entire problem: It's about getting past whatever's stalling you in the meantime.

If your office never has any available conference rooms when your team wants to brainstorm together, you could go through official channels, putting in a request for availability and waiting for approval. Or, your team could implement standing meetings, or walk-and-talks.

The change of pace and scenery could lead to new ideas that wouldn't have come up in a more rigid setting: Standing meetings can prompt collaboration, and walking can boost creativity, studies show.

You'll "expand the realm of possibilities and opportunities" just by searching for potential hacks, Savaget says.

Enjoy the process of finding workarounds

The second part of adopting a "hacker mentality" at work: Develop a genuine joy for the process of finding those workarounds.

While researching his book, Savaget asked a range of hackers — from Reddit users active in hacking subreddits to University of Cambridge cybersecurity experts —  why they liked the activity. Their most common response, he says: "It's so fun."

Many of the hackers Savaget surveyed hadn't committed any illegal or particularly malicious activities, but still anonymized themselves, he says. Turns out, they wanted to be recognized exclusively for the strength of their hacks, not their physical characteristics or credentials.

"Instead of being motivated by a possible outcome or an end goal, they're there for the process," Savaget says.

Building that mindset comes with time, he adds: As your workarounds start paying dividends, a deeper appreciation and joy will naturally follow. That'll keep you looking for more workarounds, continually making you a more creative thinker at work.

"As they work around obstacles, they identify many opportunities they didn't conceive of at the outset," he adds. "It's uncharted territory."

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Making $86,000 a year as a subway conductor in NYC
Making $86,000 a year as a subway conductor in NYC