The Bookshelf: Simple Sabotage - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
July 26, 2016

The Bookshelf: Simple Sabotage

Xerography expanded the copying possibilities but email took it to a totally new stratosphere. It’s easy to share – I mean, disrupt – others by widely sending an email or document, using the c.c. function or reply all. And we do. The authors call it a saboteur’s dream.

At the height of World War Two, a clever scheme was developed to disrupt the Nazi regime behind enemy lines in occupied territory without being detected. It involved a variety of obvious tactics such as slashing tires and draining fuel tanks but also included some unusual ideas to sabotage internal workplace processes. Those might seem a historical footnote except many of the workplace inefficiencies recommended are common in today’s government workplaces.

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was published in 1944 by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, led by the famed William (“Wild Bill”) Donovan. It included these eight tips:

• Sabotage by obedience: Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions. In your office today, how often do people fail to do the right thing because they feel procedures and rules block them?
• Sabotage by speech: Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points with long anecdotes and personal accounts. Never hesitate to make a few “patriotic” comments. How often do you get delayed or sidetracked by long-winded speeches, perhaps even patriotic ones, and off-the-wall personal stories?
• Sabotage by Committee: When possible refer items to committees for further study. Make the committees as large as possible to ensure ineffectiveness – never less than five. In modern government, this is almost as commonplace as morning coffee.
• Sabotage by Irrelevant Issues: Clog the process by raising irrelevant issues as often as possible. Do you routinely get undercut by colleagues who raise tangential matters, unintentionally clouding the real issue?
• Sabotage by Haggling: Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes and resolutions. We’ve all seen this as the wordsmiths and picky editors, ego aflame, quibble to get the new guideline to reflect their exact phrasing. This happens everywhere but certain departments, of course, will be more susceptible.
• Sabotage by Reopening Decisions: Refer back to matters decided at the last meeting and attempt to re-open discussion on whether that direction is advisable. Someone doesn’t get the decision they want or missed a meeting so they demand more discussion, perhaps raising new arguments or facts.
• Sabotage by Excessive Caution: Always advocate caution. Tell everyone you are just being “reasonable” and urge them to act similarly – haste, after all, may lead to an embarrassment later on, and government abhors embarrassment.
• Sabotage by Is-It-Really-Our-Call? Be worried about the propriety of any decision – does this person or group really have the authority to decide this matter? Or perhaps the decision conflicts with the policy at some higher echelon? In government, with so many different fiefdoms, clear-cut hierarchy, and decision rights spread all over, this occurs repeatedly.

A recent book, Simple Sabotage, brought those eight forms of disruption back to the attention of modern managers, and the authors decided to update by adding another practice not available in 1944. Back then, multiple copies of a document required carbon paper, with the limit usually two copies. So one copy for the recipient and one for the files.

Simple Sabotage
By Robert Galford, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene
Harper One, 212 pages, $29.99

Xerography expanded the copying possibilities but email took it to a totally new stratosphere. It’s easy to share – I mean, disrupt – others by widely sending an email or document, using the c.c. function or reply all. And we do. The authors call it a saboteur’s dream. “When people copy a large group of people or hit ‘reply all,’ in reality, they are giving themselves cover. Once they hit ‘send,’ nobody can come back and say ‘you never told me’ or ‘you should have asked me’ or why didn’t you keep me informed?’ That person was copied, so that person knew – or should have known. That person was ‘told,’ although a word was never spoken,” Robert Galford, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene write.

They recommend three steps to counter sabotage by c.c. The first is to take yourself off as many distribution lists as possible. How much of the clutter in your email inbox is stuff that’s nice to know but not vital – and obtainable easily, when required? Trim back, so you are faced with the data that is critical to know to do your job. For information of lesser value, devise filters to steer them to folders where you can look at them if necessary, or evacuate from the list as gracefully as possible.

Ask to be informed personally when you need to know something. Tell people – other than your boss – that including you on a group email as a cc recipient is not necessarily the same as informing you personally. If the individual wants you to “know” something, the proper avenues are a meeting, a call, a text message, or a personal email. But a cc is not an adequate substitute.
Ask them when sending information requiring a response to indicate that in the subject line, with phrases like RESPONSE REQUIRED or TIME SENSITIVE, with the date included. Obviously doing the same when dealing with them will encourage co-operation. The authors also suggest you ask people to update the subject line when the topic of the conversation changes, so you’re alerted when the fifteenth email on the holiday party is actually the beginning of a new thread that should have been titled, Important Budget Question: Response Required. “The inadvertent saboteur treats an email conversation with someone as if it were an in-person conversation, where you can start on one topic and move to another without saying, ‘Now I am going to change the subject.’ But an email conversation requires just that sort of blatant signaling,” they note.

The book, unlike its predecessor, is not a guide to sabotage but instead how to stop the inadvertent sabotage around you. Perhaps the most pernicious, because it’s so innocent and even appealing, is sabotage by obedience. After all, people who are obedient are often viewed as ideal colleagues. But those colleague’s obedience instinct is counter-productive when it prevents them from making personal judgments and overriding process that aren’t working. Sometimes, we have to skirt the rules, for the good of everyone.

You probably know the squeaky wheels in your group, people who get on your nerves and are out-of-line a lot. But the obedient saboteurs go unnoticed, so you need to ferret them out. Look for areas where there is leeway for discretion – the sample the authors cite that we can all relate to is a night manager of a hotel who tends not to give many room-upgrades. That employee is no doubt turning off clients, but it’s invisible unless you monitor, compare to colleagues who give more upgrades, and remediate.
Revisit your performance metrics and incentives to make sure you are not rewarding people for slavishly following the rules when they need to be using personal judgment. Ask yourself what would happen if a person followed that metric to the extreme – would the result be desirable?

Guard against extreme continuous improvement. They point to a call center where the manager wanted to move from an average pick-up of 1.4 rings to 1.2 rings. Not that many people hung up at the current rate – three rings is considered the standard – yet since continuous improvement is usually prized a quicker response was being sought. However, in this case, it was needless, a useless diversion. Inadvertent sabotage. Review your own continuous improvement projects to see you aren’t subtly falling into this trap.

Often, of course, people stick to the rules rather than use their own judgment for fear of the consequence if they make a mistake. In the interests of the greater good, that means you must tolerate mistakes to get colleagues to be more willing to act boldly. In moving towards that tolerance, the authors suggest a “favourite mistake exercise,” in which everyone at a team meeting shares a mistake that is difficult to talk about. Since the world didn’t come to an end, hopefully they will realize they can use their judgment more frequently, as any mistakes are likely to be less significant than the ones just confessed to. On an employee survey, you can also defend against this sabotage by asking:

• What is the stupidest rule or process we have around here?
• What are the three biggest obstacles you face in doing your job?
• If you could rewrite or change one process or procedure, what would it be and why?

The answers may help you with creating a somewhat less obedient work force. The book, similarly, offers ideas to make sure you suffer less from the inadvertent sabotage that Wild Bill Donovan delineated.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...