How to sabotage any business

Being of a naturally curious disposition, we read a recent article by The Financial Times’ columnist, John Kay, entitled “Absurd roots of modern regulatory practice” with interest and wry amusement.

We have written before on the topic of the importance of creating the appropriate culture, governance and decision-making structure, recognizing that even the seemingly “invincible” business can be brought low by skullduggery and nonsensical “internal politics”.

Amongst other points, the article suggests that regulation, and hence how regulated businesses are governed, has reached a level of complexity and prescription that may enable those subject to actually abdicate any sense of personal responsibility for any error short of the deliberately criminal or fraudulent, quoting from an obscure, satirical pamphlet, called “Microcosmpographia Academica”, written by a Cambridge classic don, FM Cornford: “The more rules you invent, the less need there will be to waste time over fruitless puzzling about right and wrong. The best sets of rules are those which prohibit important, but perfectly innocent, actions. The merit of such regulations is that, having nothing to do with right or wrong…[they] relieve the mind of all sense of obligation towards society.”

One could argue that, being written in 1908 (sic), it prefigured Dodd Frank, “Basel 3 ½” and Solvency II by over a century! Better to dwell in the Valley of Indecision and blame someone else for anything that goes wrong….

By now, Dear Reader, you are probably wondering what this has to do with the reference to “sabotage” in the title. Well, consider the following:

(11) General Interference with Organizations and Production

(a) Organizations and Conferences

(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….”

Straight out of some slightly sardonic management text along the lines of “The Peter Principle” perhaps?

Actually, the above text is taken verbatim from page 28 of… “Strategic Services Field Manual No. 3”- as in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA- with an introduction dated 17th January, 1944 signed by the legendary “Wild Bill’ Donovan. An interesting document, only de-classified in 2008! Much of it has an elegant simplicity, and is intended to enable an individual to cause mayhem at minimal personal cost.

Frankly, one could not make this up; and it is somewhat disturbing to reflect that the above behaviour is all too prevalent in many business organizations!

So, as we progress through 2016 and seek to navigate a potentially volatile and uncertain business environment across key sectors and geographies, in which “caution” may be deemed the better approach, bear in mind these 2 points:

1) Do not use regulation as the excuse for abdicating responsibility for doing the right thing; and
2) Do not succumb to an approach to corporate governance that, in reality, amounts to corporate sabotage and value destruction.

At Awbury, we believe that one has to be constantly on guard for signs of such behaviour. Questioning and challenging processes and decisions are essential components of managing any business; but they must be kept in check and used for legitimate purposes, not sabotage.

The Awbury Team


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