The CIA’s Advice About How to Disrupt a Company

written by  Ryan Seamons

If you were trying to actively disrupt a company’s work, how would you do it?

In 1944 the Office of Strategic Services (OSS — a precursor to the CIA) commissioned the creation of a field manual to do just that.

This manual had all sorts of suggestions about how to subtly disrupt work. Most of them focused on physical disruption like the destruction of buildings and interrupting supply chains. 


But there is one small section about how to disrupt the day-to-day business operations of a company. Here are some of the suggestions (directly from the 1944 manual):

  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit shortcuts 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.
  • 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 the precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
  • Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do

To be clear, this is all terrible advice.

These are literally ideas for how to make work worse, and yet many of them are now common practice at larger organizations.

As organizations grow larger they naturally turn from a mindset of expansion to a mindset of protection. Change and uncertainty become enemies. Anything that could result in failure isn’t acceptable.

The irony is that in a world more full of change than ever before, the above practices contribute to failure even though they feel safer. 

You can read the full list from pages 28-30 of the original source (it was declassified in 2008). This is also part of the introduction in one of my favorite books, Brave New Work.

What can you do to help things improve?

Improvement starts with awareness.

Share the list with colleagues. Most people laugh the first time they read the list and hear where it comes from.

Sharing can lead to raw discussion about how you meet, what approvals look like, and the number of people involved in various activities at your company. 

Finally, realize that almost every organization goes through periods of suffering from these challenges. You aren’t alone, but this does take intentional conversation to fix. 

Questions to consider

What are we doing that hurts our team instead of helps?
How can I bring these ideas up in positive ways that will encourage conversation and change?

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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