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How to destroy an organization from within

Feb 12, 2017 Management, Sunday Nation

There’s more than one way to defeat an enemy. As the best spies know, you don’t just mount external attacks; you also work to weaken your enemy’s organization from within.

In 1944, the precursor of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), created something called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. This classified booklet described ways to sabotage America’s World War II enemies. The OSS Director William J. Donovan recommended that the sabotage guidance be declassified and distributed to citizens of enemy states via pamphlets and targeted broadcasts, for maximum damage.

The sympathisers who received the instructions would then follow them where they worked if their organizations were friendly to the Nazi regime. The aim: to weaken from within.

This manual is now declassified and available on the CIA’s website. Let me highlight just some of the key instructions.

First, the advice to managers and supervisors was this: “To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.”

Next, what ordinary employees should do to ruin their employer: “Work slowly. Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can. Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.”

Thirdly, something about committees and conferences: “When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”

And lastly, the good old telephone: “At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off ‘accidentally,’ or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.”

So that was in 1944, during a world war. Or was it? As you read that stuff, I’m sure you shook your head in disbelief. If that is what you’re supposed to be doing to destroy an organization, why are those very same practices exactly what we see every day in modern workplaces today?

Look around you. Government entities excel in exactly these things: promotion of all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons; ponderously slow work; endless conferences and self-propagating committees; and near-impossible communication from the outside.

Look even further: do you know a single large corporation even in the private sector where the practices recommended by the OSS are categorically not being done? Is it not our daily experience as customers and users?

Now look closer: what about your own organization? Isn’t there a perpetually opaque promotion machine in place, delivering egregiously awful people to high places whilst systematically overlooking the genuine workers? Aren’t most of your coworkers eternal slackers who couldn’t give a damn about the mission and values hanging on the wall? Don’t you all rush off to a pointless and expensive conference the minute there’s a budget available? And isn’t that a phone ringing or email dinging that no one is answering?

Finally, bring it home. Are you yourself guilty? Do you promote relatives or cronies; do you slacken off when no one is watching and then blame your equipment; do you fritter company money away on having a good time; do you watch as customers leave unattended?

So what’s happening here? Are we still in the grip of devious foreign agents? Are you?

No, the spies merely understood the essential problem of organizational inertia. In fact, they termed these instructions “purposeful stupidity.” It turns out we don’t need spymasters to subvert us: we are perfectly capable of ruining ourselves through a selfish focus on personal gain; and through a failure to develop any collective vision.

Our organizations look like this because they are led by egomaniacs who prolong their stay by elevating sycophants. They fail because they gather people like resources to be exploited, not as talent to be ignited. They are mediocre because no gives a damn, and no one is expected to. We are stupid on purpose.

Things need not be this way. If you are an enlightened leader or thoughtful employee, take time to look at that list. If you wanted to kill your organization, this is what you would do. So why are you doing it?

Stop destroying yourself through your own flawed practices. It’s as simple as that. Start by eliminating the bad, and you might just find the good flowing naturally from there.

(Sunday Nation, 12 February 2017)

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