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

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual 1944

By Stuart Maister and Richard Holm, Chair of the Thought Leadership group of the Institute of Collaborative Working

Is your firm using a WW2 saboteurs handbook without realising it?

In 1944 the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, wrote a manual for saboteurs. You may be horrified to read its contents, as elements might be familiar to you in 2022.

It was advice for those working for companies in occupied territories, forced to continue their jobs under German command. The instructions set out how to sabotage the organisation without being caught. Here are some of the highlights, especially of the section called ‘general interference with organisations and production’…

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

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

“Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question as to the advisability of that decision.”

“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels’. Never permit short cuts to be taken to expedite decisions.”

“Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.”

“When possible, refer everything to committees ‘for further study and consideration”. Attempt to make the committees as large as possible – never less than five.”

Does any of this sound familiar? There are 39 such tips, each reading like a satire on office work. It’s as if Ricky Gervais had written a management manual!

Of course, there is a serious point here. Despite all of the efforts to create agility and empowerment, there are still many organisations in which command and control is the dominant culture and covering one’s own backside is the key imperative. There are many warm words spoken about collaboration and teamwork, yet it is often the case that leadership is based on hierarchies and internal rivalries can be as important as external competition.

The result is self-sabotage, and the behaviours which result come straight out of the Saboteur’s Handbook.

Why do we self-sabotage?

All of our business culture still derives from industrialisation and Adam Smith’s core concept of the division of labour. Most organisations remain organised on industrial principles, with specialist units accountable for narrow targets and rewarded for their specific contribution. Advanced technology has made even more measurable, and processes able to be broken down even further.

This means collaboration with other teams in an organisation is not the central aim of many functions. They are accountable for their own performance, often in quite a narrow way. Covid has simply exaggerated this, with remote staff connecting largely to their own team and focused on their own tasks.

This is true of large professional service firms as much as industrial giants. Example: lawyers are promoted, rewarded and recognised on their own performance, focused on their specific expertise. Most large law firms struggle to bring the power of their whole organisation to the table because their partners play narrow and keep clients to themselves.

This approach is no longer fit for purpose. Business customers require agility, flexibility, responsiveness and access to the full range of intellectual and technical firepower of their suppliers/partners.

Business is jazz

Traditional business is like classical music, where everything is controlled, orchestrated and the focus is on detailed coordination of different instruments according to a pre-determined musical script. Specialist players step up in line with the instructions on the sheet.

Modern business needs to be more like jazz, where individual players interact, improvise, sometimes the soloist and sometimes keeping the beat while another player steps forward. Every performance is different, and it works because there is true collaboration between the players, each with their own responsibility and responsiveness to the others. And it works because there is a tune that they’re playing, but riffing on it in their own way.

In an organisation this tune is set by the culture. And it needs to encourage jazz, not classical music, in its execution.

 So what do we do about it?

The publication of the Saboteur’s Manual in itself is fascinating, as much as the timing of when it was first produced. In those days most big businesses were industrial and manufacturing. To put this into context,  it was in 1960 that the UK first experienced a GDP where Services contributed 50% of GDP.

It meant that we had unconsciously created a ‘management template’ that was less relevant when we fast forward 60 years to a digitally-enabled and connected world. Now we find ourselves having moved away from ‘complicated businesses’ to ‘complex’ ones.

General Stanley McChrystal explored the problem of trying to manage a complex organisation in a complicated world in his book ‘Team of Teams’.  In Afghanistan he faced a complex and non-structured enemy, whilst trying to utilise a traditional military and command and control organisational structure.

In breaking down and rebuilding a more effective and productive culture, the General recognised the value of building trusting teams, through creating the right environment.

For many, this is the first step: recognising that an unconscious dysfunction (either through self- sabotage or unconscious biases and language) exists.

So once you have reflected that maybe self-sabotage is alive and well within your organisation what could you do?

Well understanding the building blocks to enabling complex teams isn’t hard. The title of General McChrystal’s book explained his recommendation: the need to create a network of interconnected teams which respond to situations and rely on each other in a deliberate way. This is an ecosystem, not a hierarchy, and it relies as much on a culture of collaboration as any specific organisational structure.

The key solution, he says, was to create the right environment for trust to exist across different organisations, whilst all still pointed towards the same purpose.

But how do you create trusting teams or organisations in a complex world? It will come as no surprise that the most human of needs is at the root of all of this. That is ‘the need to trust’, and in order to do so what leaders must do is create “team psychological safety” for individuals to build that trust in each other.

Organizational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety”. She defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple, but the ability of individuals to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of judgment or reprisal is one of the building blocks of creating trust-based relationships.

Its importance in teams where there is a high level of complexity and ambiguity is not to be understated. Without the right contributor safety, you cannot innovate, or learn from each other, or feel a sense of belonging.

By contrast it is of course less important when there is low complexity and low ambiguity in a work place, and in that context trustworthiness is achieved by delivery and credibility and reliability.

So, think about this for a moment. If the below is true (as I believe and have observed to often be the case) then is a lack of psychological safety affecting your organisation’s ability to innovate and learn, as a form of self-sabotage?

The enemy within

Lack of trust is the enemy within. It creates blame and fear and leads to the accidental application of the Saboteur’s Handbook on a daily basis in many organisations.

The outcomes are obvious: lack of innovation, delay, inefficiency, a failure to sell the whole firm to a customer, poorer service, loss of business to faster and more agile competitors…the list goes on and on.

The only way to tackle this is to deliberately do so. Very few organisations tackle this issue of trust and collaboration as a core strategic imperative based on culture and values. Few identify the behaviours that demonstrate this and make people accountable for them. There is little clarity on a practical level about how teams collaborate together to create far greater value.

Instead, despite all the warm words, industrial age thinking can drive narrow targets for different teams.   

The Saboteur’s Handbook was written in 1944 but continues to echo in ways never intended by its authors. It’s time to transform the way people work within their firms – and with their clients – to reflect the agile, fast moving and responsive needs of the 21st century.

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