Simple Sabotage: A book review by Bob Morris

Simple SabotageSimple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace
Robert M.Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene
HarperOne/An Imprint of HarperCollins

How and why some of the most destructive sabotage within an organization is unintentional and therefore preventable

According to Robert Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene, the title refers to “the day-to-day routine interactions and processes we rely on as we work that are undermined by unintentional sabotage.” They suggest a four-stage process (i.e. identify, calibrate, remediate, and inoculate) by which to prevent “the hundreds or even thousands of small, barely perceptible irritants — the ‘sand’ that clogs the machinery” — and thereby increase effectiveness, spur creativity, and improve working relationships. Whatever the given level or area, “we’ll show you how to help your group become as productive as it can be.”

In 1944, at the height of World War II, the United States’ Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — predecessor of the CIA — published The Simple Sabotage Field Manual, a classified document to help various resistance movements in Europe destroy the Axis powers from within. These acts of sabotage were premeditated, intentional, often uncomplicated, and remarkably effective. Today, comparable acts of “simple,” unintentional sabotage can also be remarkably effective. Galford, Frisch, and Greene focus on nine:

o Insist on doing everything “through channels” (e.g. lengthy and complicated approval process)
o Talk as frequently as possible and at great length (e.g. emails)
o Whenever possible, refer all matters to committees
o Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible
o Haggle over precise wordings of communications
o Refer back to decisions previously made and issues resolved
o Urge conferees to be “reasonable” and to avoid being “hasty”
o Be concerned about what is “proper” and politically correct
o Send updates and progress reports as frequently as possible, even to those peripherally involved (“Sabotage by CC”)

Keep in mind that these and other acts of “simple sabotage” are taken for what are claimed to be sound reasons: “touching all bases,” “keeping the lines open,” “deferring to collective judgment,” “not letting anything slip through the cracks,” “connecting all the dots,” “being empathetic to others’ feelings,” etc. etc. etc.

Galford, Frisch, and Greene explain how leaders in almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be, can identify these and other mindsets, calibrate a range of tolerance (e.g. time frames, deadlines, and budget limits), eliminate damaging behaviors in a constructive way, and finally, “introduce tools, metrics, and process changes to prevent the sabotage from recurring (or from occurring in the first place) and help develop a low-sabotage culture.”

In this context, I am again reminded of a GE annual meeting when its then chairman and CEO, Jack Welch, explained the reasons why he admired small companies:

“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

I commend Robert Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene on the abundance of valuable information, insights, and counsel that they provide in this “modern field manual.” This material can help to create and then strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Here are their concluding thoughts: “Where there are people working together, and where new organizational forms emerge, and technology advances, there will always be accidental, unwitting sabotage. Be vigilant!”

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