Before the CIA, there was the OSS - the Office of Strategic Services.
Formed in 1942 in order to shore up American intelligence capabilities at the request of Franklin D. Roosevelt, before the end of WWII the OSS eventually employed 24,000 people and had operations across Europe and Asia.
Amongst its responsibilities was frustrating the German war effort, and to that end, it wrote a short set of “best practices” - the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.
The purpose of the manual is fairly straightforward - it is to…
"…characterize simple sabotage, to outline its possible effects, and to present suggestions for inciting and executing it."
Sabotage varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and the use of specially trained operatives, to innumnerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform. This paper is primarily concerned with the latter type….
Simple sabotage requires no destructive tools whatsoever and produces physical damage, if any, by highly indirect means. It is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit. Making a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another. A non-cooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness and stupidity.
This type of activity, sometimes referred to as the “human element," is frequently responsible for accidents, delays, and general obstruction even under normal conditions. The potential saboteur should discover what types of faulty decisions and cooperation are normally found in this kind of work and should then devise his sabotage so as to enlarge that “margin for error."
The manual, published in 1944, has now been declassified - but it was once used as a reference guide for OSS operatives globally to train individuals in German-occupied territories how to best become “citizen saboteurs.” It says that “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature” and thus the manual means to serve as inspiration and direction for saboteurs.
In short, the best way that ordinary citizens, unhappy with the German occupation, could aid the Allied military was to drive inefficiency in their workplaces - to slow down every attempt at progress and make even the simplest tasks frustrating.
Specific examples involved mechanics not repairing engines on time, misplacing tools so that they are hard to find, or misusing tools so as to break them more frequently.
Bus drivers could “accidentally” go past the bus stops where German officers would most likely be found or want to get off.
Train operators could issue the wrong tickets to travelers so they end up at the wrong destination, or they could issue two tickets for the same seat to cause delays.
Janitors could ensure a disorderly workplace environment by keeping things dirty or placing rice in water cooling systems.
Even those without jobs could get involved - by giving wrong directions when asked, changing signposts to point the wrong way, or pretending to not speak whatever language the other person is using.
This all got me thinking about Charlie Munger, and how he has said "it is often easier to solve problems backwards than it is to solve them forwards" - try to uncover the things that would most effectively prevent you from achieving your goals and just don’t do those things - avoid what is certain to bring about failure so that you give yourself the best shot at success.
In order to achieve our goals or to make progress generally, many times we rely on working with others. Often, this collaboration happens in the workplace. And this is where the OSS focused their expertise - how might we best destroy the ability of our organizations to make efficient and meaningful progress?
So, with Charlie Munger’s guidance in mind, what can we learn from the OSS’ Simple Sabotage Field Manual?
What do the experts say is the best way to sabotage the organizations in which we work?
Think about how many of these things are a standard where you work. Does it feel like CIA operatives have been sabotaging your current workplace for decades - or that you might unwittingly have started to help their efforts?
If so, can you do anything about that?
It is probably easiest to ensure progress will not be made if you are the owner or leader of an entire organization. In this position, you can cause great distress and destroy morale if you…
Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.
Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.
However, do not despair if you are not yet the leader of an entire organization as managers of smaller teams can also do their part to bring down a group of people otherwise motivated to do well.
It would be best if you can…
Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products
When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions… Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.
To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
Don’t order new working materials until your current stocks have been virtually exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown.
In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers of poor machines.
Last, but not least, if you are more of an employee looking to frustrate the well-intentioned efforts of those around you, it is best that you…
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.
Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can. When you go to the lavatory, spend longer time there than is necessary.
Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skilful worker.
Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble.
And there we have it - some of the easiest ways to prevent a group of people from effectively working together. If you are like me, many of these things sound surprisingly familiar. A manual written in 1944 seems to suggest that the best way to break down organizations is to utilize behaviors that organizations today treat as “best practices.”
The next time you see these things causing trouble, maybe it makes sense to call them out. Explain how things might be done differently to improve your chance at success by avoiding the things sure to cause failures.
If you get any pushback, send around this manual - maybe knowing that the U.S. military’s best suggestion for citizens to help it win a war was to destroy an enemy’s organizational efficiency will cause some pause. The military suggested the same practices you have been using to attempt the opposite.
This may at least prompt a discussion about how we might improve our processes today.
Previously published here.