9 Tips for a Productive Organization from the CIA

Invert, always invert
  • Save

Instead of asking how to create a productive organization, ask how not to do it. Then avoid what causes the opposite of what you want to achieve.

This approach to solving problems came from Carl Jacobi. Jacobi was the first Jewish mathematician to be appointed professor at a German university. 

He is also known for teaching his research students that when looking for a research topic, one should ‘man muss immer umkehren’ or, “invert, always invert.”

He believed that restating problems in inverse form was one of the best ways to clarify your thinking. He encouraged his students to think about the opposite of the problem they were trying to solve and found that they often came up with the solution more easily.

Inversion is not the same as working backward or “beginning with the end in mind.” Those strategies approach the same goal from a different direction. Inversion challenges you to consider the opposite of your desired result.


So how can we apply this today?

Billionaire investor Charlie Munger is a massive fan of inverting. “What do you want to avoid?” he asks about the keys to success. 

Such an easy answer: sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable, it doesn’t matter what your virtues are. You’re going to crater immediately. Doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.”

 In relationships: What behaviors and attitudes would ruin a marriage? 

In personal finance: What can you do to lose all your money? (Focus on not doing these things before figuring out how to grow your wealth.)

In work: How would I decrease my focus? How would I increase the chance of being distracted? The answers to these questions may end up saving you hours in a day. 

CIA Field Manual

In 1944, the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), put out a field manual that became declassified in 2008. This kind of thing reminds me of that Val Kilmer spoof, Top Secret.


Great movie. 

The manual contained instructions for the sabotage of enemy forces and many of them are still relevant now. They’re particularly useful when framed through the mental model of inversion.

How to create a productive organization

Do the opposite of these actual 1944 OSS sabotage instructions:

  1. Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken to expedite decisions.
  2. 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.
  3. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  4. Demand written orders.
  5. When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.
  6. Be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
  7. Hold conferences when there is more, critical work to be done.
  8. Multiply paper work in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
  9. Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

How to apply this to corporate training

Do the opposite of these anti-principles for designing or developing digital training:

  1. Make learning an individual pursuit.
  2. Ensure all training courses, even virtual, are day-long events.
  3. Use class time for lectures only. 
  4. Use as many visual and audio stimuli as possible to get your message across. 
  5. Leave post-training learning to chance.  

What anti-principles can you come up with from your own experience in this field?

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap