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  • Matt Ellis

Simple Sabotage - Common Organizational Practices That Make Success an Uphill Fight

In his first days in office, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order for a federal hiring freeze in a clear effort to make good on his campaign promise to - "Drain the Swamp." No matter where you stand in the political spectrum, anyone who has spent anytime working in or around the federal government has likely cried out with frustration regarding organizational practices that would have any successful Fortune 500 company cleaning house with massive lay-offs.

As an apparent inhabitant of a "the swamp", responsible for at least one lily pad, I felt it necessary to reflect on lessons learned from a career of public service to be part of the solution rather than a confirmation of a stereotype. As if telepathically connected, a fellow survivor of an organizational experiment that I'd like to never repeat again in my life, sent me an email entitled - "To brighten your week."

As I read the 36 page email attachment, the subject line inspired smile faded with the sad but true. It was a WWII Office of Strategic Service (OSS) field manual titled - "Simple Sabotage". This unconventional warfare how-to guide written for predecessors of special operations and the Central Intelligence Agency, was a guide I was familiar with from research for a documentary pitch I prepared years ago. However, the context of the email reframed my approach to the training material from a bygone era. My former battle buddy suggested that I skip to the section entitled - "General Interference with Organizations and Production" - as a perfect description of the institutional problems that led to the failures within a former unit.

Just as security professionals learn from the modus operandi of criminals, I vowed to repurpose the sage advice shared by the master saboteurs that helped bring the original axis of evil to its knees for a new goal - eliminating unintentional (hopefully) self defeating and inefficient practices. Strangely, some of these seem to fall into the Michael Scott playbook!

WWII UNCONVENTIONAL WARFARE HOW-TO GUIDE = MODERN CONVENTIONAL LEADERSHIP - HOW-NOT-TO GUIDE: The slightly abridged selections below were taken directly from "Simple Sabotage," published by the OSS in January 1944.

MEETING ABOUT THE MEETING - Organizations and Conferences

  • Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order 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, resolutions.

  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the questions 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.

LEADING BY EXAMPLE - Managers and Supervisors

  • Even though parts of an order may be ready beforehand, don't deliver it until it is completely ready.

  • Don't order new working materials until your current stocks have been virtually exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown.

  • Order high-quality materials which are hard to get. If you don't get them argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior work.

  • In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers of poor machines.

  • To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

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

  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions...see that three people have to approve everything where one would do.


  • Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.

  • Complain that things are preventing you from doing your job right.

  • Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.

  • Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.

  • Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible.

  • Misunderstand all sorts of regulations.

REFLECTION IS PAINFUL: As much as I'd like to be able to take a step back from the formation and say "I'm glad I'm not one of those guys," I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit that a few of the pointers hit a little close too home, worst of all occasionally falling into the gossip and rumor mill. All I can do is take the how-not-to lessons above to heart, reflect on good and bad examples of the past, and endeavor to lead and follow in the best way possible. Starting with my lily pad, hopefully I can set an example that sends ripples through the swamp that bring change from within and make the murky waters more transparent.

-Keep pushing that boulder up the hill!

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