Everyday Sabotage

Are you tired of end­less meet­ings and a nev­er-end­ing cycle of office life? The Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al, pub­lished by the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices (pre­de­ces­sor of the CIA) in 1944, reveals tac­tics for under­min­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and morale in orga­ni­za­tions. Even today, these tac­tics are alarm­ing­ly relevant.

Who does­n’t know that? Every­day office life, a series of nev­er-end­ing meet­ings that should have become an e‑mail. Or to say it with Rain­er Maria Rilke: His gaze against the sweep­ing of the slides has grown so weary, it can hold no more. To him, there seem to be a thou­sand meet­ings, and behind those thou­sand meet­ings, there is no world. That’s the way it is, and it’s the way it is every­where. But per­haps there is an entire­ly dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion for this every­day sab­o­tage of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty from the last years of World War II. But beware: some of the answers are like­ly to unset­tle the population.

Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al 

In the Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al, the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices, the pre­de­ces­sor orga­ni­za­tion of the CIA, describes the art of sim­ple sab­o­tage. The hand­book was pub­lished in 1944 when the Allies slow­ly gained pre­dom­i­nance in World War II but still strug­gled with mas­sive resis­tance. It aimed at col­lab­o­ra­tors and sup­port­ers in the ranks of the Axis pow­ers, to whom it offered prac­tices and tac­tics to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­mine pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and morale to weak­en the sys­tem from within.

This man­u­al was clas­si­fied as con­fi­den­tial for a long time before the CIA pub­lished it as a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment in 2008. Besides instruc­tions for elab­o­rate pranks and some sol­id crimes, it also con­tains aston­ish­ing­ly time­less “tips” for under­min­ing morale and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in orga­ni­za­tions. And already 1944, one essen­tial ele­ment of this sim­ple sab­o­tage were use­less and exces­sive meetings.

Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al 

Even today, more than 70 years lat­er, there is lit­tle to add to this. Unfor­tu­nate­ly. For man­agers, the hand­book also pro­vides a few unique “best prac­tices” to weak­en pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in the long term by keep­ing the orga­ni­za­tion occu­pied with itself:

Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al 

Courageously Assume Responsibility!

As plau­si­ble as this con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry may sound, I always stick to Han­lon’s Razor instead: “Nev­er attribute to mal­ice that which is ade­quate­ly explained by stu­pid­i­ty or incom­pe­tence.” We are, there­fore, not the vic­tims of for­eign pow­ers and their delib­er­ate acts of sab­o­tage. Often, we sab­o­tage our­selves because we do not know it dif­fer­ent­ly or can do bet­ter. Or because we have not thought about it yet and instead do it as we have always done. But we can work on this if we all active­ly take respon­si­bil­i­ty for our time and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. And then it takes courage to break the pat­terns and do it with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion because: Doing is like want­i­ng, just more badass!

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.


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