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IT Governance: Lessons from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual

In WWII, the CIA's predecessor issued guidance to citizens behind enemy lines to destabilize governments and bureaucracies; a lot of the suggestions were exactly the things that slow companies down today

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was created in 1944 by the predecessor of the CIA. It was distributed to disgruntled citizens of enemy states to help them destabilize their governments by taking disruptive actions.

Called “simple sabotage,” the goal was to demoralize the enemy through a series of otherwise innocuous acts, including these nuggets of advice: “refer all matters to committees” and “raise the question of whether” a decision “lies within the jurisdiction of the group.” What is most interesting about the manual, as a recent commentator pointed out, is that many of the prescriptions didn’t encourage breaking rules. Rather, they promoted an almost religious adherence to the rules.

Now, if the US intelligence services promoted strict adherence to rules and governance processes to bring down nations, imagine what it could do to a company’s IT department. As IT teams are increasingly asked to support fast, innovative digitization, IT leaders should be cautious that unintentional “acts of simple sabotage” don’t derail their efforts.

Lessons from the Secret Service

Highlights from the section for managers and employees behind enemy lines sound surprisingly relevant today.

  1. “See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”: 60% of the top barriers to faster working in IT stem from problems caused by “handoffs.” Handoffs are the exchanges of information, approvals, advice, and work deliverables.

    One of the biggest opportunities for IT leaders to prevent IT governance processes from becoming bottlenecks to digital transformation is to streamline the handoffs between IT groups.

  2. “Apply all regulations to the last letter.”: Many IT professionals miss opportunities to move forward quickly by following the same formally defined steps to all projects or requests regardless of size, risk, or complexity.

    As IT staff default to the most rigorous process “just in case” and worry about giving up too much control, CIOs must overcome skepticism about applying judgment to governance and delivery processes and design self-service governance mechanisms.

  3. “Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”: Already in 1944, US intelligence services knew the effects of risk aversion on the fortunes of nations. The same applies to digital transformation today. CIOs need flexible and open-minded teams that can quickly adapt to new ways of working.

    As 94% of IT employees are risk adverse, process-centric, or siloed, the only way for CIOs to ensure success in digital transformation is to build a climate of openness in IT.

More On…

  • Digital Enterprise 2020

    These resources will help you understand the future role for technology at your firm, and the implications for the corporate IT team.

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