Recipe for Obstructing Your Colleagues
You want to know how to obstruct the work of one or more of your colleagues? Well, hopefully not:
Ever since the OSS/CIA 1944 Field Guide for Simple Sabotage Original CIA link (now 404s); available currently from the Department of Homeland Security. became well-known, elements of it have satirically been referred to when discussing corporate culture. It appears regularly on Hacker News; this comment is a great example. In that vein, this is a guide, a recipe, for you to obstruct your more proactive, revenue- or achievement-minded colleagues.
These are not real recommendations. Do not implement these techniques. But they are useful for understanding what others are doing to you, and are written based on experience of being the recipient. See the endnote for more thoughtful introspection on the purpose of this article.
That said, let’s dig in! You want to know how to obstruct the work of one or more of your colleagues.
Seem Reasonable in All Things
Pose reasonable-sounding objections positioned as genuine, thoughtful, and wise business considerations, positioning yourself as the natural leader. It is imperative that you seem reasonable rather than motivated for any specific outcome.
When using this guide, make sure you have multiple objections lined up, so that if someone decides to tackle your obstructions you can drop the first objection and bring up the second, eventually drop the second and bring up the third, and so forth. You can ensure your opponent wastes enormous amounts of time and energy engaging you.
The following is written using terminology for a software company, such as ‘product’ or ‘adding features.’ The advice here is applicable to a wide range of business areas. Replace ‘product’ with whatever project you work on and ‘adding a feature’ with your choice of action or change.
You don’t need to implement these techniques in order, but they are sorted approximately in ease and impact. Let’s begin small.
Insist that a planned item has never previously been discussed, and it should be (it’s ok to ignore discussions and decisions made as recently as a few days ago; if expressed with sufficient confidence, your superior will never question this.)
At worst, state you don’t recall; if your opponent has been wise enough to keep a record or minutes, state they don’t match your recollection and insist on a new discussion.
State that your area doesn’t have the feature or goal currently, and that indicates that not having it is by design. You don’t need evidence that it was intentional not to have the feature. Also, immediately cast doubt on any discussion about change in customer needs, market changes, or anything else indicating that something not necessary in the past may be necessary now. Therefore, you should not have it now.
Question if now is the right time. A valid question by itself, this is most effective as part of an ongoing strategy. In any meeting, get in early with this because it makes any further discussion about the feature be about something the value of which is now portrayed as questionable. This is framing: any early statement that casts doubt will taint the rest of any discussion. Get in early with uncertainty, preferably before your progressive opponent has been able to speak positively, to ensure that no matter how positive the rest of the discussion is, a cloud of uncertainty hangs in the background from the start.
This is a great opportunity to appear strategic and insightful, by stating that in your belief now is not the right time but you’d like to revisit it later. Indicating willingness to revisit is key because it is not an obvious refusal to engage and therefore retains the appearance of genuine consideration: you do not, of course, intend to actually revisit. A couple of quarters later, you can repeat the same thing: ‘I’m not sure now is the right time, but let’s revisit in future.’ It is always safer to make a decision later, so present yourself as the safe and wise option (indicated by your caution) and the proactive person as too fast—if you’re lucky then with only a few meetings every couple of quarters, you can push decisions past years to even half a decade or more of inaction.
Ongoing Concerns as Advice
Some of these techniques will let you continue delaying your colleague’s initiatives for months or years. One of the most powerful techniques is to build on your expression of concerns, but have a set of concerns of which you use only a few. Ensure that you send these concerns to a superior, or preferably several, in the form of conversational insight. You never give advice to a superior, but you can always express concerns, and if you’re lucky enough to be consulted for input on a topic, to humbly share your opinion. Your opinion will, of course, be that of concerns.
As time passes, the market will change, customer feedback may place more pressure to deliver, etc. The topic will be revisited. Retain the same statement—you have concerns about the direction, goal, feature—but now, communicate different reasons. You can continue this for several years, changing and updating your worries. The proponent of achievement will need to address or counter your concerns, and rotating in new ones means they will always be working to analyse and argue against something you are no longer stating. This makes their analysis value-less or even appear foolish, and means they will constantly be a step behind.
If challenged by the feature’s proactive proponent, either:
- Deny the old ones: you have always had your current concerns.
- Admit to new concerns, and position it as market awareness and flexible responsiveness to a rapidly changing environment, where it’s pure concidence—or evidence of your past insight—that the new concerns happen to lead to the same conclusion as the old concerns.
Why concerns as advice? Because people rarely change their minds in the face of new information. Get in early, continue the message. Because opinions rarely change, and few people admit to making mistakes and even fewer admit to themselves that they could have been misled, if you’ve embedded your message well then even in the face of contradictory evidence they’ll persuade themselves they were right in the past and so are still right now. An ongoing stream of concerns means that, even if years down the track your superior wonders if they made the right decision, they will have been saturated in ongoing framing such that the conclusion is embedded even if the details why change, and from human nature they are unlikely to step back years and critically examine the issue from its foundation. Oddly, this means that the longer you give poor advice, the more the person you advise is likely to stick to what you’ve advised.
State False Direction
State that product direction that was decided on and progress is steadily being made towards is not, in fact, the direction it was decided the project would go in. Feel free to ignore all previous decisions and even years of planned and implemented work in this statement.
A good time to do this is if work on the direction has paused for a quarter. Pauses are always a good opportunity for obstruction. People’s memories are surprisingly short and busy people’s memories often more so. Pauses are therefore great opportunities for introducing uncertainty. There can be multiple reasons for this: quality issues elsewhere that result in a hands-on focus for a quarter or a release; temporarily pausing work in the current area; or even normal resource constraints so that work needs to be split quarter-on-quarter-off rather than continually worked on.
When work resumes after one of these pauses, immediately claim this is a new decision and new direction that requires new approval.
If you manage to pull it off, you can force everything back to the starting point. Plus, by re-deciding an already decided decision you have the opportunity to, in the new decision’s discussion and multiple meetings, introduce new alternatives, concerns, questions, and argue against doing anything at all.
This technique can very effectively stop multi-year strategic plans especially if they’re half or two thirds done, complete enough that it’s damaging to the product to stop, but not complete enough that the plans’ success is clear and your attempt to pause them is too negatively visible.
State that any small feature or decision of the sort usually made every day is in fact so significant it should have been discussed as part of the financial year plan; since it was not discussed, it can not and must not be looked at until the next year.
State that any small feature or decision of the sort usually made every day requires approval by upper management. There are multiple options:
- Present it as a change in product strategy (this one is infallible because any feature addition provides a new opportunity for customers’s productivity or changes in workflow, and so is, technically, a change in direction);
- If that doesn’t work, ask about risk: ensure you don’t provide any data for why this might be risky, but simply talk about risk (this one is great because it forces the person you’re blocking to make a risk assessment, no matter how safe you both know the change is);
- Or, discuss customer perception and a concern that customers may respond negatively to the new feature (again, don’t provide data for why this change might affect customer perception of the product, or any information on why something improving productivity would be viewed negatively, but speak only in vague terms about concerns—as a bonus, speaking of customer perception in any way at all demonstrates your excellent skills in leadership and customer awareness.)
Escalating for approval by upper management demonstrates your loyalty and respect to your seniors, and seeking their approval for any work indicates your respect for their judgement. It in no way indicates inability to make decisions at your responsibility level.
It is almost impossible to back down from: no-one will advocate for making a call on behalf of a senior person, so once escalation is suggested, the decision must be escalated, without option.
Escalation is an excellent delaying tactic. To get approval or a decision from senior management you may need to schedule one or more meetings, create a document containing an overview of the question, description of the alternatives, the pros and cons for each, cost analysis, risk analysis, and a recommendation. It is more and more prohibitive the smaller and smaller the decision is that you insist it is done for, and if insisted upon for something sufficiently trivial the value of the time spent preparing this documentation vs the amount of work your colleague has to do for more important things ensures that this technique can effectively block something completely. This also means senior management will never even be aware of the use of this technique: because your opponent will have given up once you insist senior management is involved, they will in practice never be called in to adjudicate on something trivial that would cause them to ask why their time is required.
If All Else Fails
If it gets so far, and the topic is going to reach senior management’s ears, ensure you present the trivial issue in the same presentation format as major decisions are presented: doing so makes it look like a major decision because it’s wrapped in the same language, slide deck style, etc as genuine major issues. You may well get away with no-one realising it’s trivial.
Alternatively, wait until you have a genuine major issue to present. Roll your small issue into or include it as one part of the genuinely major issue. By tying them together, and presenting as aspects of the one decision insisting they must be discussed together, you can easily mask its triviality.
Demonstrate Decision Making Skills
Being against a feature can risk looking too negative. Instead, demonstrate involvement and coöperation. Provide two alternative options but at far extremes, and insist on only accepting one of the options you present.
This demonstrates your openness (you will accept multiple options spanning a wide spectrum), and your decisiveness (you will make a call for one or the other.) Good options to provide are to do nothing at all, or a gigantic implementation of significant cost and time: you can suggest this with a straight face as that ‘if we believe in this direction we should fully commit.’
Since both are extreme options, this is especially useful if you are trying to block progressive, step by step growth. By definition, careful progressive strategic movement cannot match either doing nothing nor doing everything all at once, and faced with being required to implement a multi-quarter large budget project instead of something that would take only a few hours, your opponent will likely give up.
Show Business Acumen
Question if the feature will directly bring revenue. Normally, features such as productivity enhancements are excellent for marketing and building excitement around a product, but given a release usually has several related features that interoperate as one larger theme it can be hard to tie sales to one specific change out of multiple interrelated improvements. Seize on this, and insist that you understand if one specific change that is part of a group will bring revenue.
With a good choice of one feature out of the several, this can reduce the value of the entire group of changes, and if you can ensure a linchpin feature is not done, you might even get the whole group canceled—or even if the features are delivered to customers, made ineffective.
- If there is direct customer feedback, you can resolve this by expressing doubt that the customer feedback is representative.
- If there is sales feedback, express concern if it is the most effective change that could be made. This is especially good if you’ve already successfully delayed the feature to late in the release so there is no time to prepare a proposal for an alternative—this can let you avoid something being done for an entire project cycle.
As with all things in business, the above works best if you have management senior to you who are sympathetic to you. For example, a manager who prefers not to spend effort championing work will find ways to overlook your obstruction, because preventing things being done aligns with their desires. However, you can achieve all the above even with management who are keen to move fast. The key is presenting every move as wise, thoughtful, and in the business interest.
Good luck, and best wishes in blocking everything you can!
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Naming Gives Power
This is not really advice: please don’t do this. This article came from experiencing everything written above, sometimes over years (those quips about successful multi-year delays are painful!) and as part of my own effort to respond, and thinking about the situation, wondering: what if I just wrote down what happened in the format of an instruction manual?
It was cathartic, and more, I think it is a great way to communicate to those who also experience similar behaviour. There is power in describing actions clearly. Frustration at situations can be better dealt with when we understand the situations. Naming and describing are tools that lead to understanding. When you are obstructed, it can feel like you’re pushing against a big soft wall, an utterly immoveable yet deforming object, like a haybale or giant bale of wool. (Both are soft, but incredibly, incredibly heavy. Pushing against obstruction feels a little like what I imagine it feels like to be a high-energy photon hitting lead.) Obstruction can often change forms, and putting observed behaviour into words can lead to forming a shape for what was previously vague and shifting, and that can help you change towards a mental mindset that can address and engage with the problem.
Final word: Advice for the Obstructed
If you are the progressive, proactive colleague, and your management ignores or otherwise enables the obstructor, and assuming you don’t want to leave, the only way to combat these techniques is to refuse to engage: to call out tactics, ignore, and move onwards. Calling the tactics out is key because the behaviour is a form of manipulation: recognition of manipulation allows your team to bypass its effects.
But no matter how gently or politically done, the act of calling out this behaviour risks being seen as aggressive or not a team player. Your obstructive colleague can respond to your attempts to move past the obstruction by complaining of your unprofessionalism, in that any recognition of behaviour and subsequent management escalation by you positions you as aggressive. Remember that their success at obstruction indicates their success at working with or manipulating their and your management: any struggle will be difficult. Documentation helps.
Ultimately, the only way forward is to have management who recognise the pattern of obstruction and refuse to enable it. Poor management will refuse to resolve issues, and very poor management will even deny that issues exist. Obstruction, by losing progress, can over time severely impact a product’s performance or market position, and through those revenue and business valuation. It should never be permitted.
Sadly, if it is permitted or even encouraged, you have two options: to stay and work for progress in what will likely be a long road to burnout, or, more wisely, you may find it best to leave the organisation.
Unlike the facetious best wishes to the obstructor, above, I give you my genuine best wishes in resolving your professional situation. Good luck.