So, you’ve decided to run a business
(into the ground)

So, you’ve decided to run a business
(into the ground)

On the 18th September 1947, President Harry S. Truman founded the Central Intelligence Agency. But before there was ever a CIA, there was the Office of Strategic Services.

“Oh my god, it’s a mirage.
I’m tellin’ y’all, it’s sabotage”
– Beastie Boys

Though only active for three years between 1942-45, the OSS was responsible for coordinating overseas espionage for the different branches of the US Armed Forces.

Known primarily as an international intelligence-gathering operation modelled on MI6, and for its contribution to the allied war effort, the OSS also had an interesting side hustle in B2B publishing.

The ‘Strategic Services Field Manual no. 3’ was distributed in occupied territories during WW2 to help breed an army of ‘citizen saboteurs’, dedicated to slowing the production of goods and services necessary for the German army.

However, the OSS recognised that:

“To incite the citizen to the active practice of simple sabotage and to keep him practicing that sabotage over sustained periods is a special problem.”

This is because:

“Purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature. He frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance, and information and suggestions regarding feasible methods of simple sabotage.”

You see, the OSS wasn’t just after your common or garden variety idiocy. Oh no, far from it. Cultivating ‘purposeful stupidity’ amongst the citizen saboteur required specific encouragement and direction. To wit:

“Barge and river boat personnel should spread false rumors about the navigability and conditions of the waterways they travel. Tell other barge and boat captains to follow channels that will take extra time, or cause them to make canal detours.”
(Chapter 8: Transportation: Water, Section a: Navigation)

Whether you want to know how to make waterways unnavigable, or how to set fire to a factory, blunt expensive tools or just generally bring a previously healthy organisation to a grinding halt – the OSS field manual is full of useful gems.

For those of us without access to inland watercraft or arson materials but with a pressing desire to be, well, generally counter-productive asses there is a particularly informative chapter at the end of the book.

‘Chapter 5, subsection 11: General Interference with Organizations and Production’ is your go-to guide to wanton organisational incapacitation if you spend the greater portion of every day sitting at a desk looking at a computer.

Here is just a smattering of the advice given in 1944 to would-be agents of freedom:

  1. Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  2. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  3. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  4. To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.
  5. Multiply paperwork in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
  6. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.
  7. Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.
  8. Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
  9. Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.
  10. Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.
  11. Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion, especially when confronted by government clerks.

I’m sure none of these sounds eerily prescient or familiar.  Just as I’m positive that none of us (especially those of us in creative agencies) is guilty of any of the above, or the litany of other corporate insurgency tactics listed in the OSS field guide.

Now, popular science would have us believe that we make about 35,000 decisions a day. That’s a lot of cognitive load for the ol’ noggin to take.

My question to all of us is, given the volume of decisions that we have to make each day, is there a chance that some of us are unwitting saboteurs, accidentally prohibiting our own success?

I, for my sins, have often been accused of bringing irrelevant issues to a discussion and illustrating my point with “needless, meandering anecdotes”. I have also, on more than one occasion, sobbed unconsolably when dealing with government clerks.

There is a mountain of reading material out there (good and bad) all about how to make better decisions in business and go about creating a workplace culture that promotes good judgement. Forbes even has a handy checklist.

I would like to propose a much simpler approach.

If you ever find yourself uncertain as to how best to approach a problem at work, ask yourself this question:

‘What would the citizen saboteur do?’

Identify what that is – then go ahead and do the opposite.


[Header photo: Hunters Race on Unsplash]


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Matt Kilgour

Creative Strategist

I'm a Creative Strategist at Earnest. I read books, ride bikes and do my very best to help B2B brands be creative and strategic (it’s in the job title).