One of the most incredible documents in US history was declassified by the CIA in 2008. The Simple Sabotage Manual of 1944 is directed at spies behind enemy lines, detailing procedures for performing hard-to-trace acts of obstruction and vandalism. Many of these recommendations are unique to technology of the WWII era, such as ways to disable switchboards or water turbines. However, there is a wealth of suggestions for the disruption of organizations that will ring true to the modern reader.
The key to sowing chaos in the workplace is acting incompetent, surly, and disruptive. Shocking, right? When put that bluntly, it seems self-evident. Yet, we do so many of these things thoughtlessly within our own workplaces that it's worth sitting with some of the suggestions aimed at those who would do deliberate harm.
Who among us doesn’t instantly recognize the diabolical genius of gems such as these:
To lower morale and with it, productivity, be pleasant to inefficient works; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers, complain unjustly about their work.
Just because "failing upward" has been recognized as a natural phenomenon for decades, doesn't mean its prevalence has decreased over time.
When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.
Should be talk about employee onboarding? Actually... let's not.
Garble telegrams to enemy destinations so that another telegram will have to be sent or a long distance phone call will have to be made. Sometimes it is possible to do this by changing a single letter in a single word - for example, changing “minimum” to “miximum” so that the person receiving the telegram doesn’t will not know whether “minimum” or “maximum” is meant.
"Miximum" is just brilliant. But if we're honest with ourselves, how often do we still misread what someone else is Slacking us?
It's quite an incredible collection. Just as every initial UNIX command is now a multi-billion-dollar company, each one of these suggestions prefigures a whole category of productivity tool or HR software. A similarly revelatory set of suggestions fall under the Organizations and Conferences section of the handbook detailing how to grind progress to a halt through the deliberate derailment of meetings.
Want to bring organizational progress to a screeching halt through an ever-expanding series of dull meetings:
Make “speeches”. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
We've all been in that meeting. Bonus points if none of it actually makes any sense.
Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
When possible, refer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible - never fewer than five.
More meetings, more attendees - what a chilling vision of the future.
And of course:
Hold conferences [meetings] when there is more critical work to be done.
Too many meetings, too many attendees, people speaking too long and on irrelevant topics… sound familiar? Since gathering into a group to complete a shared goal is a core human dynamic, we shouldn't be shocked that the our failings in this arena are consistent over time. Yet, somehow it's hard not to be. After all, we've had 80 years of research into organizational behavior to come up with new ways of completing our work, not to mention both the computer and internet revolutions that have completely reordered vast swaths of our society.
Sadly, after all this surface-level progress, in we have the same challenges organizing ourselves in the 2020s as we did in the 1940s even if today, it seems slightly less likely to be the product of foreign spies than in 1944. Perhaps, to quote the great Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”