How Companies Self-Sabotage with ‘Best Practices’

In Q4 2015, Business Insider reported on a declassified 1944 CIA sabotage manual. The article summary included a list of methods that the CIA recommended at that time for sabotaging organizations.

Here are my top picks from that list:

1. Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

2. Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.

3. When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.

4. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

5. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

6. Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

7. To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.

8. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

Remarkably, these CIA-recommended methods for sabotage describe typical ‘best practices’ at nearly every company I’ve worked for during the past 20 years.

In fact, the only times I have NOT encountered these factors on a daily basis, as part of routine work flow, was when I was either self-employed and/or working for very small (start-up level) companies.

Consider the primary differences from my observations: In more-enlightened, highly functional companies, employees are:

· empowered to make decisions on behalf of the organization, and thus capable of responding rapidly to real-time changes in market conditions;

· cross-trained enough that job titles are irrelevant;

· part of lateral, clustered teams, rather than top-down hierarchies;

· paid a regular (commission-style) bonus based on company profit, which reinforces a sense of co-ownership in the organization, its goals, and daily activities to support such;

· able to work remotely when they need or want to (for more on this topic, see here and here and here);

· encouraged to work around/beyond systems such as Agile/Scrum (for more on this topic, see here and here);

· trusted by the people who hired them.

Bottom line (Learnings)

Companies that want to thrive (or even just survive today’s rapid technological changes) should start by eliminating the self-sabotage that seems to be inherent in modern ‘best practices’ for business. As anyone can be a saboteur, so too can anyone be a counter-saboteur: Read the list above, share it with your teams and managers, discuss it together, and start demanding function over dysfunction.

Otherwise, what’s the point of all that we do each day?

Read the full sabotage manual (pdf) here on the CIA.gov website.