The Best Sabotage is Undetectable. So how do you spot Field Sabotage in Meetings?

Office of Strategic Services (OSS) 1944 Manual
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) 1944
Simple Sabotage Field Manual
A Timeless Classic

Answer: Read the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

A while back I went to the inaugural meeting of a ‘community of practice’ (CoP). Like many CoP’s they had objective of, “sharing information and knowledge to improving our collective practice”. Nice! Nothing you can argue about there… or maybe not.

Astonishingly they spent well over an hour discussing who would be allowed to join, or in reality who to exclude from the Community of Practice.  People ‘below a certain job grade’, ‘people from different disciplines’ and ‘people we don’t like’ (they didn’t actually say that, but I know what they meant). There were a lot of people included on the ‘list’.

The discussion was all neatly wrapped up in some pretty specific language around:

  • quotas of people each organisation could send;
  • first and second choices; standby lists;
  • different sub-groups permitted etc, and
  • the great momentum killer – voting rights.

This was a community of practice, what exactly they might ‘vote’ on was a complete mystery to me.

The Best Sabotage is Undetectable. I’m sure none of it was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the meeting, but it didn’t half bring this to mind – The Simple Sabotage Field Manual published in 1944 by a CIA predecessor, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).

Here’s a link to a SlideShare showing the complete OSS Manual.

The manual is packed full of about things you might expect like; disrupting manufacturing, transportation and power production. The usual ‘sabotage’ stuff like putting sand in gear boxes, loosening connectors etc. There were also some fantastically creative sabotage measures like, taking a bag of moths to the cinema to ‘release during propaganda films’, brilliant!

Sabotage in the Modern Meeting. Page 28 is where it gets spooky, no clever tools or equipment, just guidance for behaviour in meetings that causes the maximum disruption. You will have seen this behaviour every day in many places, people enthusiastically applying sabotage instructions written in 1944, to modern-day meetings.

General Interference with Organisations and Production: Below is an unaltered extract from 1944, OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual instructions, a copy of the original is at the end of the post. 

  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. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
  3. 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.
  4. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  5. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  6. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  7. Advocate “caution.” Be“reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
  8. 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.

It leaves me a bit speechless, written in 1944 and still being enthusiastically applied by people almost 80 years later. Maybe we should be telling them the war is over.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Watch out for saboteurs, they are more highly trained than you think.
  2. They might not even know they are doing it (the “let me play devils advocate” merchants are the worst) which makes them really hard to deal with.
  3. Deploy a few anti-saboteur techniques. I think I’ll have a go a describing some in the next few posts. This might involve my own ‘Spot the Saboteur’ Checklist. Once you identify them you can start to deploy counter measures.
Original OSS Guidance
Text from the Original OSS Guidance

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

12 Responses

  1. I have been to a so many meetings like this, mainly within local government. There was a monthly compulsory meeting that we all dreaded attending. 3 hours minimum and I soon understood why everyone brought emergency rations with them. And I understand that a local community forum, led by councillors is very like this, not even allowed to ask questions, you have to write it down and they decide whether they will address the point you raised. Very democratic.

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