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Let's get paralytic: how apparently sensible processes go horribly wrong

Scarcely a week goes by when I am not reminded of just how easily apparently reasonable and sensible procedures can clog up an organisation.

The best account of how this is done can be found in an odd document that should be compulsory reading in every organisation and committee.

In 1944 the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which later became the CIA, published a guide for their spies in Europe on how to undermine the then-dominant German armies of occupation. Much of their work involved putting bombs on railway tracks or leading Flying Fortress bombers to the right target.

But some of the work was more subtle, and involved spies who were working inside the system. The guide (which can be found on the CIA website) recommended eight methods for undermining organisations from within:  

  • “Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit shortcuts to be taken 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 precise wordings of communications, minutes and resolutions.” 
  • “Refer back to a matter decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.” 
  • “Advocate ‘caution’. Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow conferees to be ‘reasonable’, and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”  
  • “Be worried about the propriety of any decision. Raise the question of whether [it] lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

I could add a few other suggestions to these. The most common OSS-type response in contemporary organisational life is to call for more analysis; more data; and more scenarios. Often that’s sensible. But if there simply isn’t enough hard data to tell you what to do (which is often the case), insisting on more analysis guarantees a big diversion of time and energy from actually achieving anything.  

Another common response is to oscillate between asking for shorter papers that synthesise the key issues, and then complaining that there isn’t anything like enough detail to make a decision. Again, this can be guaranteed to soak up senior management time and energy, to little effect. Or another good technique is to demand a general policy on issue x rather than a specific decision. This too absorbs much management time and, as policies cumulate, clogs up the organisational arteries.

All of these tendencies are perfectly reasonable. On its own, each makes perfect sense. When decisions are difficult, everyone can agree on these diversionary options. But taken together they can lead to stagnation, and crush any hope of creativity or agility.  

Evidence and facts are pretty useful things for good decision-making. But the mark of good leadership – whether within management teams or on committees and boards – is that it knows when to face down the more malign tendencies described above, and when to force people to take decisions, and to act. 

Then, it’s surprising how often the difficult questions turn out to be better answered through action than they ever could be through talk, procedure and analysis alone.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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