How boards, councils, and committees unwittingly employ the Simple Sabotage Field Manual
Simple Sabotage Field Manual Harry Cayton blog
Written during World War II, the Simple Sabotage Field Manual instructed civilians living in Nazi-occupied territories on how to disrupt organizations by purposefully sabotaging productivity and progress. In this Voices column, Harry Cayton explores the striking similarities between the manual's advice on how to sabotage meetings and behaviors commonly seen at regulatory board and committee meetings today.

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Some of you may already know the ‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual’ but I have only recently discovered its delights. I am indebted to Adam Whitcombe, Deputy Chief Executive of the Law Society of British Columbia, for bringing it to my attention. Published in 1944, by the Office of Strategic Services – a forerunner to the CIA – it was intended to assist the training of civilians living under enemy occupation during World War II.

It is hard to imagine that the average French worker under Nazi occupation needed advice on how to disrupt a factory or cause chaos on the railways. Since the manual was written in English and remained secret until 2008, it is also hard to see how ordinary French workers would have come across it. But now I have, and I am pleased to share a small part of its wisdom with you.

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual describes ways to train people to be purposely annoying telephone operators, dysfunctional train crews, befuddling middle managers, blundering factory workers, disruptive committee members, and so on. In other words, it’s about teaching people to do their jobs incompetently. Why the OSS thought they needed to teach people this is not very clear since the manual is closely based on how people actually behave. Although apparently written with all seriousness, the anonymous authors were astute observers of human nature and their instructions on how to do things badly seem very close to how people do things anyway.

Those of you who serve on the boards or councils of regulatory bodies or attend their meetings for any reason will be intrigued, as I was, with the advice on how to sabotage meetings. I quote the section in full:

Organizations and Conferences:

(1) Insist on doing everything through ‘proper 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 is within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

Sabotage? Isn’t this how many board, council, and committee members normally behave? Maybe the training of simple saboteurs was so effective that they or their descendants are still operating undercover in our public bodies?

We have all observed these tactics, consciously or unconsciously, played out during meetings. The tendency for committees to proliferate, for decisions to be deferred, for procedure to take precedence over outcome, and for debates over punctuation in committee papers to divert attention from content to form are all too common.

We have all seen the effects of these behaviors, but in our desire to counteract the governance saboteurs in our midst, we have often resorted to the very tools they use to disrupt meetings: introducing parliamentary rules of order; writing and rewriting codes of conduct; following the saboteur into creating a maze of committees, including, of course, a ‘Governance Committee’ to advise on even more internal procedures which the saboteur will enjoy using to point out that one of more of their colleagues has failed to follow precisely, thus requiring a further iteration of the procedure to be written by the governance committee and referred back to the board, perhaps with a misplaced comma here or there to encourage further discussion.

Sabotage may be simple, but counteracting it is less so. By looking to models of governance to solve our problems with the governance saboteurs, we are only playing into their hands. We should measure regulatory governance not by internal rules, policies, and procedures but by clear decisions and good outcomes for the public.

Harry Cayton is a sought-after global authority on regulatory practices who created the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and pioneered right-touch regulation. He is a regular Ascend Voices contributor. 


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Harry Cayton
Written byHarry Cayton
Harry Cayton is a sought-after global authority on regulatory practices who created the PSA and pioneered right-touch regulation. He is a regular Ascend contributor.


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