Weekend Reads: Simple Sabotage, Michael Phelps, and NASCAR
This week we’re starting out a little differently, so bear with me.
I’d like you to think about the organizations where you have worked and then picture this scenario: You’ve just sat through yet another meeting with a large group that produced nothing useful, perhaps because somebody droned on about their own personal experience. Or because a colleague kept raising irrelevant points. Or because the agenda ground to a standstill when someone mentioned it was worth assembling a task force or committee to study the issue further before proceeding. Or maybe because a colleague questioned whether the decision you were all trying to make was even your group’s to make and that maybe it would conflict with something that someone higher up in the organization had said or wanted.
Any of this sound familiar?
You may have a saboteur in your midst!
If there is even a hint of truth in what I just laid out, courtesy of this Fortune article, you may be amused to learn that these are some of the techniques outlined in a booklet published in 1944 by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA, titled Simple Sabotage Field Manual.
Of course, this just cried out for some deeper digging, and what I discovered on the CIA’s website is that this previously classified manual “described ways to sabotage the US’ World War II enemies” and that OSS director William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan recommended the “guidance be declassified and distributed to citizens of enemy states via pamphlets and targeted broadcasts.”
The booklet contained sabotage instructions to inform ordinary people overseas who may have disagreed with their country’s policies towards the United States as to how they could undermine their governments through acts of disruption. “Some of the instructions seem outdated; others remain surprisingly relevant,” the CIA website notes. “Together they are a reminder of how easily productivity and order can be undermined.”
Ahem, yes. At the risk of looking like I am quoting from Monty Python or The Onion — or revealing truths about your own workplace — here are the eight suggestions included under the headline “General Interference with Organizations and Production: (a) Organizations and Conferences”:
- “Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit short-cuts to be taken to expedite decisions.”
- “Make ‘speeches.’ Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate ‘patriotic’ comments.
- “When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.
- “Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
- “Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions.
- “Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
- “Advocate ‘caution.’ Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow-conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
- “Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”
Of course, this is no laughing matter. And if you are wondering why I raise all of this, it’s because three co-authors have parlayed all of this into a new book “to expose and inoculate your organization against” these techniques: Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors that Undermine Your Workplace. The idea is that these types of behaviors undermine productivity and should be rooted out.
There is more. The CIA website lists five “particularly timeless tips” from the manual that are simply too good not to share:
- “Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
- “Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.
- “Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
- “Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off ‘accidentally,’ or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.
- “Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an ‘interesting’ argument.”
(If you are curious, you can see a PDF of the original field manual on the CIA’s website.)
Here are some other interesting reads you may have missed:
- What? Smart beta can’t make me rich, pretty, or thin? What a killjoy you are The Reformed Broker: “Five Things Smart Beta Can’t Do For You” (The Reformed Broker)
- “I used to think being great at investing long-term was about genius,” AQR’s Cliff Asness said recently. “Genius is still good, but more and more I think it’s about doing something reasonable, that makes sense, and then sticking to it with incredible fortitude through the tough times.” (Business Insider)
- In “The Upside of Being Miserable,” Morgan Housel reminds us that “everything that’s good today was born from something that wasn’t good in the past. The reverse is also true. Most of our current problems stem from past comforts that we cheered for, but made us lazy and complacent. Once you recognize how powerful this irony is, your opinions about financial stress might change.” (The Motley Fool)
- I wasn’t sure whether to cheer or mope when I read recently that the average life expectancy of children born today will probably be somewhere in the upper 80s, eclipsing the current mark of 79. For as Josh Barro points out, “every rose has its thorn, and longer lives happen to create some problems for Social Security. As people live longer, they spend a larger fraction of their lives in retirement, collecting benefits.” And as those of us living in the United States know all too well, Social Security is in dire need of fixing. “We’re Living Longer. That’s Great, Except for Social Security” (The New York Times)
- I did want to mope when I read this: “Poverty does not treat men and women equally, especially in old age. Women 65 years old and older who are living in poverty outnumber men in those circumstances by more than 2 to 1. And these women are likely to face the greatest deprivation as they become older and more frail.” “For Women, Income Inequality Continues into Retirement” (NPR)
And Now for Something Completely Different
- I heard a fascinating story recently about the strange beginnings of NASCAR, or the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. (It was in the context that technology companies and venture capitalists like to think they are they pioneers of the “pivot”: they “try out new ideas, shed them quickly if they don’t catch on, and move on to the next new thing.” But they having nothing on Georgia moonshine runner Raymond Parks who “got to know fast cars while transporting moonshine along Georgia’s back roads and went on to become a pioneering figure in Nascar as the owner of its first championship team.” He died in 2010 at age 96. This story is what a former boss, a formidable newspaperman, liked to call “cocktail nuggets” — those bite-sized stories that are perfect ice-breakers (“I heard a fantastic story the other day . . .”). (Wall Street Journal, The New York Times)
- I had not read any works by American author Tobias Wolff before I read this 2003 interview with The Paris Review, but I enjoyed it so much that I have decided I need to give his books a try. Apparently “automobiles figure prominently in [his] work” — as the interviewer notes, both of Wolff’s memoirs “begin with trucks hurtling toward disaster.” (The Paris Review)
- Here in the United States, families are gearing up for the annual Thanksgiving holiday, where pies feature prominently along with turkey. In this wonderful article, David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura, reveals “what happens when a Thanksgiving tradition gets completely out of hand.” (Slate)
- The 116 photos NASA picked to explain our world to aliens — what images would you select? (Vox)
- Why are so many bright kids with good prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto, California? “The Silicon Valley Suicides” (The Atlantic)
- “Reading email is correlated with stress, actually typing and sending email is not.” Here’s an interesting question posed in a recent article pondering whether email is evil: “Overflowing inboxes are wrecking productivity and making people feel guilty. Is the technology to blame, or are we?” (The Atlantic)
- In his post, “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,” Shane Parrish writes: “Understanding comes from focusing, chewing, and relentlessly ragging on a problem. It comes with false starts, dead ends, and frustration. Thinking requires time and space. It’s slow. It means saying I don’t know. In short, thinking is everything the modern workplace is designed to eradicate.” (Farnam Street)
- If you’ve read any of my previous roundups, you’ll know that running articles feature occasionally. I recently came across a wonderful piece written by Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer at The New Yorker: “What We Think about When We Run.” It reminded me that I need to re-read the classic Alan Sillitoe short story from the late 1950s, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” (The New Yorker)
- When I saw the image in the tweet below, it took me several seconds to realize I was gazing at Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer. Curious, I clicked through to the Sports Illustrated story and read about his remarkable comeback. (Sports Illustrated)
— Don Gonyea NPR (@DonGonyea) November 13, 2015
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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