Productivity advice from US spies

I have to admit to a certain level of smugness when a popular website publishes something that I’ve already highlighted here years ago. Like this top-secret US sabotage manual from 1944, for example, that I first mentioned in 2015.

This new Quartz article does take a different approach to it, however, by looking at what it can teach us about today’s bureaucratic management styles.

How to cope with a toxic boss, according to a US spy manual from WWII

“Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit shortcuts to be taken. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions. Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant projects.” …

“When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions. To lower morale, and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient works; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.” …

If you feel like your boss is following these directions, the only option is to insert yourself as a counter-saboteur, and to get ahead of their actions. This World War II manual has actually proven helpful in my own corporate work experience. If nothing else, it has prompted me at times to think about how to turn an overly bureaucratic situation into a productive and expedient one.

Enigmatic Estonia

It might have a picturesque mix of medieval architecture and stomach-churning TV towers, but Estonia isn’t your average ex-Soviet country.

Concerned about Brexit? Why not become an e-resident of Estonia
And that’s the opportunity, because Estonia is working on linking its tax office with its counterparts in other regions of the world. The Estonians want to offer the option for, say, UK citizens to run their UK companies through the Estonian system, which would in turn, in the background, with no extra work for the user, make sure that the UK tax office receives all the money it is legally due. A UK-based entrepreneur, they hope, will decide to open her business in Estonia, use an Estonian bank and pay for some Estonian services, even if the company was only going to be trading in the UK, because she would find Estonia’s national infrastructure far easier to deal with than the UK’s. In other words, a nation is now competing with its neighbours on the basis of the quality of its user interface. Just as you might switch your bank to one with a better mobile app, the Estonians hope you’ll switch your business to a country with an infrastructure that is easier to use.

enigmatic-estonia-1

Innovative in other areas, too.

Estonia to become the world’s first free public transport nation
Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn?
“A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”

enigmatic-estonia

It had its own tiny, imaginary kingdom for a while, due to an unseen clerical error.

Kingdom of Torgu, Laadla, Estonia
500-odd people who lived in the area were surprised by this negligence, but soon decided to take advantage of the mistake. They came up with the idea of starting their own country, and calling it a kingdom. The throne was offered to a journalist and political activist named Kirill Teiter, who accepted it and became the first (and only) monarch to reign over the newly formed Kingdom of Torgu. The kingdom has its own flag, a coat of arms with a “snail-dragon” as the emblematic animal, and its own currency in coins, the “kirill,” with the worth of 1 kirill fixed to the price of a half-liter of local vodka.

enigmatic-estonia-2

But what really caught my eye was this article on its language (the summary is from The Browser).

“Did you eat the whole cake?” On learning Estonian
Estonian is popularly known as a difficult language to learn. Much of its vocabulary is unfamiliar, as the only other national languages it’s related to are Finnish and, more distantly, Hungarian. It’s even been described as the most difficult Latin-alphabet language for a native English speaker, and some of its features have assumed an almost mythical status.

enigmatic-estonia-3

I loved the exasperation in The Browser‘s summary of that last article.

How to learn Estonian. You have to grow up in Estonia, pretty much. The complexities of the language have an “almost mythical status” among scholars. Estonian nouns decline through fourteen or more cases, each with a singular and a plural. The essential cases — nominative, genitive, partitive — are also the most irregular, often involving changes in the stem of the noun. Verbs come in 149 varieties, each with five moods. But there are only two basic tenses, past and present. The future has rules of its own.

Goodness me. And I thought learning French at school was hard.

Clever ways of being stupid

Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)
But in addition to human failings, there’s another possible reason for bureaucratic disorder; the conspiracy-minded among us may be forgiven for assuming that in many cases, institutional incompetence is the result of deliberate sabotage from both above and below. The ridiculous inner workings of most organizations certainly make a lot more sense when viewed in the light of one set of instructions for “purposeful stupidity,” namely the once top-secret Simple Sabotage Field Manual, written in 1944 by the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Reducing burden, or just moving it about a bit?

desk

Something that’s not going to affect many people out there in the real world, but still, a step in the right direction:

Trac burden cut after Hefce review
Universities are to benefit from a reduced administrative burden in supplying information about their costs, but government pressure to give more of such data to students has met with a cool response.

Having said that, for me that administrative burden is coming from a different direction. For instance this, thankfully not from my place…

Thousands of Winchester students lose out on loan money
Nearly 2,000 Winchester students have each lost out on £400 of student loan funding due to an admin blunder.

Man after my own heart?

Gus O'DonnellIt’s been suggested I have a listen to Gus O’Donnell’s Radio 4 thing, In Defence of Bureaucracy. It sounds great — “Former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell argues that bureaucracy is an essential part of a functioning democracy” — if you like that kind of thing. Which I do.

I was hoping The Google might tell me a little more about this but the links it provided were decidedly unhelpful.

One from FT.com looked promising:

There is no shame in being a bureaucrat
Bureaucracy brings fairness in a way more discretionary systems cannot, says Gus O’Donnell. Calling someone a bureaucrat should not be a …

but the article’s behind a paywall.

And another, from The Daily Mail, was heading off down a path I didn’t care to follow

Unsung heroes? No, pen-pushers like Gormless Gus are the bane of modern life!
We should be proud of our millions of bureaucrats, said nasal Gus, or Baron O’ Donnell of Clapham, as he has become following his seamless …

Let’s leave that there, shall we? I’ll just have to make up my own mind.

Update:

Sir Humphrey: Yes, yes, yes, I do see that there is a real dilemma here. In that, while it has been government policy to regard policy as a responsibility of Ministers and administration as a responsibility of Officials, the questions of administrative policy can cause confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy, especially when responsibility for the administration of the policy of administration conflicts, or overlaps with, responsibility for the policy of the administration of policy.

HE bureaucracy

I really CAN’T STAND these types of articles. PLEASE STOP YOU’RE NOT HELPING.

The irresistible rise of academic bureaucracy
Grahame Lock, a fellow in the faculty of philosophy at Oxford University, says that a managerial “hyper-bureaucracy” has taken hold in higher education. “Imagine that managers are going to assess the quality of restaurant meals but they have no sense of taste,” he says. “They have no idea – everything tastes the same to them. So what are they going to do? They will undertake evaluations such as how many minutes did it take for the soup to arrive at your table? How many words of explanation did the waiter use? And so on. Everything is evaluated quantitatively, so the obvious thing for a manager to do is to increase the amount of information gathered…”

HE audits

Leader: Red tape: A form of distrust – As audit overloads academics, it also undermines their freedoms, impedes their work and damages their public standing
A scary new word to emerge in our cover story is “hyper-bureaucracy”, which describes “an out-of-control system” that emerges in the search for optimum efficiency and takes no account of the costs in time, energy and money that are needed to achieve it. It is a bureaucratic nightmare in which there is no end to the extra information that can be acquired. The monitoring of contact hours and how academics spend their time are examples of the type of bureaucracy that “eats up people and resources”, according to Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick.

Audit overload – Bureaucracy is an inescapable fact of life in today’s academy. John Morgan unravels the true extent and consequences of red tape
There are those who argue that a “hyper-bureaucracy” has taken hold, tailoring universities to the needs of the labour market, coercing academics into following the rationale of business in their research choices and destroying notions of the intrinsic value of scholarship. But do academics direct their unhappiness at those who shape policy, or at blameless administrators who happen to be closest to hand? And isn’t bureaucracy necessary to make academics accountable and to ensure that public money going into universities is spent fairly and effectively?

Future shock, adhocracy

Future shock
Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also coined the term information overload.

Adhocracy
[A]dhocracies will get more common and are likely to replace bureaucracy. … Downsides of adhocracies can include “half-baked actions”, personnel problems stemming from organization’s temporary nature, extremism in suggested or undertaken actions, and threats to democracy and legality rising from adhocracy’s often low-key profile. To address those problems, researches in adhocracy suggest a model merging adhocracy and bureaucracy, the bureau-adhocracy.