L. Gregory Jones: Self-sabotage through bureaucratic thinking

Simple Sabotage book cover

Storytelling, experimentation and improvisation are practices of traditioned innovation that move our institutions away from self-sabotage and toward flourishing, writes the theologian.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” This famous line from comic-strip character Pogo is worth remembering when we are tempted to blame others for the failures in our leadership and organizations. Too often we engage in behaviors that sabotage our organizations rather than offering leadership rooted in practices of traditioned innovation that move us faithfully and effectively toward “the end” that is our mission and purpose.

Our propensity for self-sabotage became clearer to me in reading about a declassified 1944 field manual for the sabotage of an enemy’s organizations developed by the precursor to the CIA. It is a savvy list of unobtrusive ways to prevent an organization from accomplishing its purposes.

It is also a painfully humorous list that shows how often we engage in these behaviors ourselves. In “Simple Sabotage,” Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene unpack the items on the list to show how easily we can undermine our own work and that of the organizations we lead and serve.

The list itself typically sparks howls of laughter from other leaders. And why not? Its subversive behaviors sound a lot like the meetings where I am sharing the list!

  1. Insist on doing everything through “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 lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

It is quite possible, and even natural, to discover the intersections and overlaps on the list. For example, long speeches often lead to a preoccupation with irrelevant issues. Once you get lost in irrelevant issues, you lose sight of why you want to communicate something to others in the first place. At that point, haggling over precise wording is more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than crafting a clear articulation of strategic direction.

Similarly, an overcommitment to caution often causes you to return to matters resolved at the previous meeting and question whether you in fact ought to implement what was decided. Further, the more you revisit the last meeting, the more likely you are to encourage an obsessive focus on “channels” and “committees” and to slow down or stop any real action.

Our laughter at the list ought not to lead us to overdetermine its insights. For example, well-functioning channels and committees are integral to any flourishing organization properly oriented toward its purpose and mission. And attention to language and the exercise of prudence are crucial to wise and effective leadership.

Taken together, though, these eight tendencies of self-sabotage are characteristic of a dangerously bureaucratic way of thinking. Ironically, as these examples show, bureaucratic mindsets can afflict small groups as well as large organizations, and they are as likely to sabotage faith-based nonprofits or for-profit businesses as they are governmental bureaucracies.

How do we overcome simple sabotage of our organizations? One obvious and easy step is to keep this list handy. Laughing at our tendencies, perhaps through shorthand references -- “We’re making speeches again” or “This is self-sabotage by large committee” -- can help us become vigilant.

Using shorthand can be very effective in senior leadership teams. Drawing on a passage in the biblical book of Numbers, my team would often point out to one another when we were focused on going “back to Egypt” instead of moving forward toward fulfilling our mission.

Yet shorthand reminders and vigilance aren’t enough. We also need a different mindset, one that is rooted in practices that help us execute with urgency.

This mindset is traditioned innovation. It entails practices that foster both continuity with the best of our past and the passionate pursuit of the possibilities of the future.

What do those practices look like? One such practice is storytelling that is focused on “the end,” our purpose and mission, and that returns us to “the beginning,” what brought our organization into being. Such storytelling is very different from long speeches or distractions created by irrelevant issues.

A second practice is experimentation paired with a commitment to rapid scaling of what works. Often associated now with the phrase “the lean startup,” it is the opposite of bureaucratic planning processes that emphasize committees, channels of authority and a preoccupation with appropriate jurisdiction.

A third such practice is improvisation, particularly in combination with the first two practices. A commitment to improvisation leads us to a “yes, and …” spirit that overcomes self-sabotage through collaborative bridge building.

I suspect that the 1944 field manual was created in part because the Nazis were really good at storytelling. They had a bold vision of the end; it just happened to be deeply corrupt and horrifyingly unjust. They were committed to scaling their efforts in pursuit of a “final solution.” And they were engaged in continuous improvisation.

In such a context, sabotage via bureaucracy was an effective tool in the war against the Nazi vision and hegemony. Our problem today, though, is more likely that we are sabotaging ourselves with bureaucracy, and we have increasingly lost sight of our end, abandoned the imagination of a lean startup and replaced improvisational leadership with bureaucratic management.

The good news for leaders of Christian institutions is that traditioned innovation is in our DNA. It is a biblical way of thinking, rooted in the best (and most truthful) story of all: the story of God’s inception, redemption and promised consummation of creation. Thus, we can challenge our propensity to self-sabotage through a rediscovery of our core identity, vision and practices.

The poet Mary Oliver, in her recent poem “I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly,” illumines the natural, if dangerous, tendency toward caution that can lead us to self-sabotage. In so doing, she also invites us to an imagination for innovative leadership:

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.