Classically speaking, there are two ways to wage war. The first method is to fight directly, to attack with clubs or guns or ICBMs. The second method is espionage, or using spies to infiltrate and manipulate the enemy from within.
But there’s also a third way of waging war, documented more formally during World War II, and it gave us a shiver to read about it. Not because it’s gruesome, but actually, because it’s mundane. It’s the war you still fight at work every day, and you don’t realize you’re fighting it.
This third method of warfare was codified in a secret field manual produced by the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) in January 1944. It’s only 32 pages, which is remarkably short considering the contents.
So what did it say?
The CLIKK Notes version:
You don’t need spies, specialists, or even soldiers to damage the enemy war effort. Conventional citizens can do a hell of a lot of damage if they want to… and many of them want to. The added benefit of using citizen volunteers as saboteurs is that, as non-combatants, they hide in plain sight.
You can erode and obstruct the enemy organization rather than fight or manipulate it directly. The manual described two types of interference available to citizen saboteurs. The first type is ‘simple acts of destruction,’ a.k.a. breaking little things on purpose, and anything counts as long as it’s useful to the enemy. The second, bigger type is ‘obstruction of management and processes,’ and this is where things start to sound like life in a modern business. Because the manual points out:
You don’t even have to break the rules. Just don’t do a good job. The more you can act like a dumb cog in a mindless corporate machine, the more damaging it will be to the enemy effort. The manual offered ten specific tips for citizen saboteurs (our paraphrases):
Do everything through standard channels. No quick executive decisions.
Waste time by making sure you share your own opinion in every conversation.
Pass the buck to committees as frequently as possible.
Raise irrelevant subjects as frequently as possible.
Haggle over the precise words used in communications and meeting minutes. Hang everyone up on the minutiae.
Re-open old discussions and decisions as often as possible.
Always advocate for the cautious and conservative choice, and express your fear that a hasty decision will embarrass the team later.
Always question whether it’s your authority, responsibility, or jurisdiction (on the basis of propriety and hierarchy).
Be friendly to the inefficient workers and find reasons to complain about the efficient workers.
Hold conferences and meetings instead of doing the important work.
After the manual was declassified in 2008, a Harvard Business School professor named Stefan Thomke found it and observed the parallels between (literally, textbook) organizational sabotage and the “tried-and-true best practices” which predominate many modern businesses. When Professor Thomke reads the above list to executives, they chuckle nervously.
We’ll let Professor Thomke have the last word:
“I’m not saying you should never have a committee or you should never go back and haggle over the minutes of a meeting. But we need to be more thoughtful about how we approach our work, especially during the current global health crisis. Just because we’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean we should keep doing it.”