Toward the end of my military career, my office was tasked with leading the effort to develop the concept plan—what essentially amounted to an elaborate proposal—to establish a new center of excellence for the U.S. Army. For the uninitiated, a center of excellence in the military sense is an organization that serves as the focal point for the doctrine, organization, training, materiel development, leadership and education, personnel management, and facilities management functions for a particular set of skills. In the same sense that Beaverton is the hub of Nike’s global operations, a center of excellence is a parallel military construct for aviation, maneuver, sustainment, or any number of other functions.
Since everything worth knowing in the Army is governed by a regulation, my team and I took the common sense approach and followed the regulatory guidance for preparing a concept plan for submission to the Pentagon for approval. In its final form, the concept plan was easily two inches thick—a thorough needs analysis capped with a detailed proposal for how the Army could efficiently and economically meet those needs. We even added the obligatory E-Ring routing form, knowing that without this single piece of paper, our work would never see the light of day.
Less than a week later, I received a phone call from a Pentagon staffer: “Where the PowerPoint presentation?”
“PowerPoint presentation?” I replied. “What PowerPoint presentation?”
“This was supposed to be submitted in PowerPoint.”
“The regulation clearly states that a concept plan is supposed to be submitted in written form. A document, not a presentation.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s how the G-3 [Operations] wants it. But the G-8 [Resource Management] will reject it if it’s not in PowerPoint.”
Looking back on the months of work that went into the concept plan, and the weeks required to translate that work into writing, I understood all too well how many more weeks it would take to recreate all of that in PowerPoint. I stood my ground. “Nope. We followed the regulation to the letter. You have the concept plan. If you want it in PowerPoint, you can do it.”
The voice on the other end didn’t budge an inch. “I’ll just go ahead and send it back. We’ll wait for the PowerPoint.” Click.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
As infuriating as that episode was, it was hardly the first time I had encountered aggravating workplace dynamics in the military. While it might be easy to write off the experience as typical bureaucratic nonsense, it was more than that. It was a pattern of behavior that I was all too familiar with. Most of us are.
Who hasn’t attended a meeting where someone was constantly trying to raise issues that had already been settled previously? I lost count of the number of people I worked for who always insisted that we put the brakes on an important project out of abundance of “caution” where no appreciable risk was present. Ever serve in an organization where the staff make up rules as they go? And who hasn’t had to work with someone who made so many mistakes that their work had to be checked and rechecked endlessly? It’s almost as if they purposely stood in the way of progress.
Maybe they were.
THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
The bible of workplace dysfunction was the 1944 Office of Strategic Services (OSS) “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” Declassified in 2008, the manual is a veritable how-to guide for making life difficult on others: “Acts of simple sabotage, multiplied by thousands of citizen saboteurs, can be an effective weapon against the enemy.” The instructions range from how to sabotage buildings to instructions on disrupting manufacturing and disable power production and transmission facilities. But the eleventh chapter reads like something that could have been written last week.
Chapter 11, euphemistically titled “General Interference with Organizations and Production,” includes instructions for everyone from managers and supervisors to general office workers. At the organizational level, saboteurs are offered timeless tidbits of advice, such as “insist on doing everything through ‘channels,’” “refer all matters to committee,” and “bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.” Managers and supervisors are encouraged to “demand written orders,” “give incomplete or misleading instructions” to new employees, and “hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”
Office workers are no exception. They can “misfile essential documents,” “tell important callers the boss is busy,” and “prolong correspondence” for no good reason. The average employee can also get involved, and the guide encourages them to “work slowly,” “pretend that instructions are hard to understand,” and “do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment.” And if those fail, anyone can contribute to the chaos: “Act stupid,” “be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible,” and “cry and sob hysterically at every occasion.”
The OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual is so bad that it’s good. Like a classic Stephen King novel, once you start reading, you don’t want to put it down. When I was finally able to set it aside, I couldn’t help but think that we’d mastered the tenets of workplace dysfunction in our time. I could see the faces of people I knew well in the pages of the guide. Some had long careers in government service. Some I found in higher education. Some work in health care. Others randomly insert themselves in our lives when it’s least convenient.
We’ve become the very thing we had once hoped to inflict on the enemy.
* * *
The epilogue to my opening monologue was sadly typical of what’s required to navigate workplace dysfunction: we spent the next few weeks converting the written concept plan into an unholy set of PowerPoint slides. Hundreds of them. The concept plan was resubmitted in both formats and was approved quickly without so much as a single question or comment. To this day, I’m convinced no one ever laid eyes on those slides.