Learning from master spy Philby about problem solving

Kim Philby, the master-spy for the USSR who was a very senior officer in MI6 in charge of Russian counterintelligence  🙂  said that if you have a very important item that needs to be investigated, it is best given to a junior officer.  Senior officers are not always ready to work hard, they have system perspectives more than event perspectives and they don’t want to shake up the boat.

Philby’s logic is very relevant for organizational problems as well. Via 3 short stories, I shall illustrate this.

Howard is an electrical engineer who wants to leave his job because he’s been offered 600 USD more at a competing firm. Pierre, Howard’s boss, know that it could take up to a year to replace Howard. And if he cannot be replaced, his function will need to be outsourced at a huge cost to an overseas firm. Norma, VP HR, is please that Howard may be leaving because if the organization kowtows to Howard’s demands, the whole salary structure will be shattered.

Sam is a senior software engineer who has been asked to estimate the time need to develop a certain feature. Sam’s time estimate is 4 months for 4 engineers. Sam’s estimates have never been off target by more than 2 weeks. The CEO did not like Sam’s estimate, so he gave it to Ze’ev, Sam’s boss and VP R&D for a second opinion. Ze’ev said the work “can probably get done in 6 weeks, with just a few odds and ends to be cleaned up at the customer site”. When the rubber hit the road, the project took 5 months.

Hadassah, a customer service engineer, is frustrated because spare mechanical parts (needed to fix a broken piece of equipment) are not available due to supply chain issues. Martin, VP Supply Chain has presented an optimistic report that supply chain delays are down 12% in Q2. Hadassah reports that the client will uninstall equipment, and indeed this is what happened.

Yes, the view from below can be a parochial one, with limited scope. But analysis and decisions made at the top can be flawed, distorted and painfully wrong.

The key to getting this right is to solicit input  both from below and above, make decisions NOT necessarily based on hierarchy, but rather on risk mitigation. 


PS and PPS

Thanks to Eike Spengler for the input to the initial draft.

Kim Philby was probably the best spy in modern history. His motive was purely ideological and driven by his abhorence of fascism. I recommend this book for those interested.



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The “face that you keep in a jar, by the door”.

Who would have thought that in order to buy a train ticket or movie ticket, board a plane, or set up an appointment with a doctor, or know when your car is ready at the garage after a tune up-you need a telephone.

And the telephone is expensive and needs replacing. Often.

And if you don’t buy a phone, your goose is cooked. You can do nothing. Nada. Rien de tout.

Organizations are same same, just different. Hidden from the new employee hide a series of hurdles, and if you don’t have the right platform, you may be out of luck.

When one joins an organization, you need to acquire a new language. For example, an impossible deadline becomes a challenge; employee dissatisfaction becomes churn rate, piss-poor managers are go-getters, politics is self-advocacy.

It gets worse.

You may be asked to feign agreement, kiss your bosses’ arse, attend meetings and read memos concerned with gender politics. You may even be asked to celebrate events that run against your beliefs.

Eventually like in the  the Beatles Elinor Rigby,  you learn to wear “a face that you keep in a jar at the door”. At times you may feel like a character in Black Mirror.

So no, you do not need to buy a phone. You just need to fake it.

And espouse authenticity.

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Making Organizations Smarter

It takes very little time to notice how stupid organizations can make smart people shirk responsibility and act stupidly. Add to that are the number of people who have grown up with very little content beyond what they read on Wikipedia.

Present forms of organization intervention focus mainly on the individual (and ignore/repress systemic issues).  Other more classic forms of classical organization intervention (diagnosis, intervene, follow up) are almost dead because of their cost, the slow pace of OD vrs the speed as strategy that characterizes most organizations as well as  the number of clueless consultants selling packages of pre-cooked crap which create a bad rap for OD’s reputation.

I want to share several simple ideas that I use to make organizations smarter.

They are not cure-alls. They are not magic bullets. Yet they have triggered change.

  • Weed out slogans
  • Focus on creating focus
  • Make sure that the mutual dependencies between functions are acknowledged, clarified and “well-oiled”
  • Use personal coaching to make good people better. Don’t waste your bullets
  • If something has not worked for a long time, create a by-pass.
  • Make things easier to so by creating opportunities to use common sense
  • Buy change if you cannot make it happen

Each of these points is the subject of a different post, because people do not read long articles any more.

That’s part of being stupid. 

I will follow in the next few weeks, albeit all points are self-evident, if you ask me. My first follow up post. Follow the link.




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How to ensure that no one in your organization cares about anything

  1. Anyone can work from home as much as they so desire as long as they get their job done.
  2. Discourage time “wasted” meetings in which there is, at times, a semi structured agenda where staff merely “chews the fat” from time to time.
  3. Use Whatsapp (or other chat platforms) as the main channel of communication.
  4. Ensure it’s acceptable for people to check their phones when talking to one another.
  5. Set very aggressive goals to bring out the best of people, but ensure the implementation of wellness plans to help manage stress.
  6. Build centres of excellence leveraging global capabilities whilst encouraging synergy without ruling out competition.
  7. Used digital based shared services to provide HR, travel and logistic support, leveraging global talent in different time zones.
  8. Strive for a work life balance except for crashes at client sites, support of strategic clients, board member requests and finance-related crises.
  9. Hire staff in the kitchen and parking lot to ensure DEI values are implemented.
  10. Never capitulate to salary demands if it breaks the system.
  11. Run critical messages by your PR department to polish them up.
  12. Acquire innovative companies, and put them under the supervision of your middle management.
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What are messages that most management ignores? אָזְנַיִם לָהֶם, וְלֹא יִשְׁמָעוּ*

I speak 3 languages very well: Hebrew French and English. I can understand articles Spanish (but cannot speak)  and when I hear a conversation in Arabic, I understand the jist most of the time.

However, if I hear Russian, I cannot understand a word. Since the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel, I hear a lot of Russian. All the time. For decades. But I do not understand one word. And, for whatever reason, I cannot pick it up.

Which started me thinking-what does management hear, and not pick up? Using two French words to explain myself…what does management hear (ecouter), but does not hear and “get it” (entendre).

Here is my try at answering that question:

1) The timetables are very aggressive.  The present schedules are wishful non-thinking.

2) If we release this latest “version” too early, our reputation may take a hit.

3) We cannot recruit because our salary entry level is too low.

4) A few key players are on the net looking for jobs. This is serious. People are our greatest asset.

5) Folks in the latest company we acquired a year ago are checking out mentally.

6) If we do not “sell” this decision to the people on the line, it ain’t gonna happen.

7) Diversity is good for the bottom line.

8) The cooperation between units A and B is not because of role definition: it’s a trust issue.

9) It is very hard to restore trust. If we tell don’t tell the truth to our staff, they won’t trust us for a very long time.

10) After we downsize, the best people in the company will start to look for a job. They fear that they are next.

*Psalms 115 6-7

They have ears, but cannot hear, and noses, but cannot smell.  They have hands, but cannot feel, and feet, but cannot walk; they cannot make a sound.












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When the Followers Lead

So much has been written on what effective leaders do and do not do.

Much of what has been written is pie-in-the-sky. Recently I even read something about the selflessness of leaders, which I thought was science fiction or humour.

Leadership is not only impacted by the personality of the leader. 

Leadership is also very much impacted by unrealistic and dangerous expectations of followers. These expectations forge leaders’ behaviour, in the same way that a tweet (as opposed to a fact) impacts the response of many current politicians.

In this brief post, I want to point out the most salient dangerous expectations that followers have from leaders and how the leaders REACT to these expectations and themselves follow the mob.

  • Resolve complex issues of what constitutes moral behaviour
  • Mitigate ambiguity when it is impossible to do so
  • Provide “meaning” for random events
  • Recreate a sense of preserving greatness or uniqueness that perhaps never was
  • Perfuming pigs
  • Focusing hatred externally

And I can go on and on.

We tend to focus on what leaders do to garner influence. But leaders are often led, and kowtow to the desires of the followers for their own ego needs. This type of leadership is very very common. 

I think it is time to talk a bit about the ways followers create dysfunctional leadership with misplaced expectations. And to put all this in a proper cultural perspective.

Oh yes, the cultural context of leadership. How heretic this is for traditional OD which assumes that everyone wants or needs democracy. Egypt, Yemen, Eye-raq, Afghanistan, Russia, China.

But that is another story, widely addressed in other blog posts and articles of mine.

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Basic Training started 53 years ago, today

During the month of May, most of the soldiers who are recruited came from technical schools, the street, a jail and/or from lower socio-economic groups.

Matriculation exams are in May and June, so it’s obvious that kids doing the “matrix” will not be called up till August.

There are some exceptions however to who gets enlisted in May: returning citizens, new immigrants, people who have studied abroad, people enlisted due to human error which can arbitrarily change an enlistment date, and other bureaucratic mishaps.

With an MA in hand from an elite university in Canada, I was enlisted in May. Yes, I was one of two “demographic exceptions”, the second being Freji Buabi, who had just immigrated from Lebanon with a PhD.

Freji had a very pronounced Arabic accent, and said that if things get rougher than they already were, he would volunteer to be shot as a terrorist in an exercise.

Recently, I have come to remember a few of the people and incidents that made Basic Training as interesting as it was difficult.

I did night guard duty with Mizrahi between 3 am and 6 am three times a week. Mizrahi had been the slammer twice for drug dealing and car theft. He came from a small town in the dessert.  Although he was native born, his Hebrew was awful, all masculine and feminine forms mixed up. He could not write one word without a mistake.

Mizrahi hated me; he told me that he has pissed in my canteen “to sweeten up” the time I had to spend “with a low life like me”.

Mizrahi had a girlfriend and let’s put it this way: he had not yet entered the promised land. Using a flashlight one night, I wrote his girlfriend a love letter for him and, two weeks later, my status with Mizrahi and his toughs changed. I got big portions at lunch, and I was no longer harassed.

Mizrahi eventually returned to jail where I imagine he resides till today, if he is still alive.

Shimon Drori was from Beer Sheva. Drori had been enlisted in May due a sports injury he had incurred at the time he was supposed to have enlisted.

We had a lot in common: he read a lot; loved to speak English & French, secular and suffered from minor asthma. But more than anything else, Drori was a kind sort.

When someone fell, he helped them get up. When his mom sent him a package, he shared the goods. When we boarded a truck to go home for the weekend, he would always ask where I would be staying, as I had no “home”.

I looked for Drori many times after the army, but apparently the Earth swallowed him up. Or he lives in San Francisco or Berlin.

Piko was the son of a famous General in the Israeli Defense Forces, a fact he half tried to conceal; I stress the “half”.

Nasty, evil and snide, he picked up on everyone’s weakness and harped them.  I am clumsy (understatement); I certainly gave him material for him at which to poke fun. Luckily Piko was caught drunk and went off to kalaboosh (jail) in the middle of Basic Training.

Then of course, there was Shmulvater who probably was the most stupid soldier I ever met. He used to brag that he could get the Base Commander’s car to drive him home. He did so by faking his mother’s death. Shmulvater of course never returned to finish basic training with us, as he served 60 days in military prison.

I also remember the clothes and the smells. I am very tall, and nothing fit me. Buabi told me, ”Fuck off Shevat and stop complaining, this isn’t a fashion show. We are prisoners of war”. And everything smelt of gun oil.

There are interesting borders that I have passed thru in my lifetime. The Taba Gate border crossing from Eilat, Israel to Sinai Egypt is a line in the sand which separates two different worlds. The border between Singapore and Malaysia being another such border.

But nothing for me is more differentiating than the border between Montreal’s McGill University and IDF basic training, which I crossed 53 days ago today.



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The AI Craze-Beware

Does anyone remember the TQM (total quality management) craze, which was a cure-all for everything from faulty service, poor recruitment, shitty products and poor planning? *

What ever happened to JIT-just in time-the  Olympic gold-medal planning process, rendered totally irrelevant by changing circumstance?**

And MBO, management by objectives-a scheme which died of a heart attack cum stroke when things started changing so quickly that goals are now defined almost ex post facto.***

If you storm forward, you either become a war hero or come home in a box. If you wait a while, you lose the financial benefits that many early adapters get, but when the going goes sour, you don’t sink with the ship. And the going ALWAYS goes sour. ALWAYS. No wars end all war; all total solutions fails and breed a new set of problems.

AI does not replace human intelligence. It’s a change and  a meaningful one. But it is just another change. But it is not a game changer for the complexity of human organizing.

I prefer to wait and see what damage AI does, and help clean up the mess. I do not want to be vaseline used admister AI. For me, that is not OD.


*The software industry taught us that releasing products that don’t work well is a very good business.

**Oh yes, disruptions to global supply chain can occur. It takes years and years to fix. Wars also break out, which ruin all assumptions.

***I do not know of one industry that can define goals a year in advance and stick to them.







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Employees who care could get in trouble- And that is a HUGE PROBLEM

Recently my car was stolen, as were another 43 Hyundai vehicles the same night in the “Sharon Area” just north east of Tel Aviv.

The cars were stolen at 22.00 (10 PM)  and appeared on a security camera at 22.14 in the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, where the cars disappeared and were dismantled, with the spare parts sold back to Israeli garages the very next day in a rare form of Palestinian/Israeli cooperation.

Getting reimbursed and re-equipped with a new car turned out to be a major challenge. The bureaucracies of the (almost brain dead) Israeli police, the insurance company, the Ministry of Transportation and the various authorities was a nightmare.

One of the more interesting things I noticed was that how few people really cared about the issue at hand. Rather, they cared about filling out the various screens and not getting in trouble. Nearly no one gave a flying fuck about me.

For example: to get reimbursed, I need to provide a copy of my stolen car license. But the license was in the car’s glove compartment. And the Ministry of Transportation would not issue me a copy because “the car appears to have been stolen. Please contact out help desk”, where no help was available “for this specific issue”.

Another example: I needed to provide a copy of a receipt for the last time my car was in a tune up, detailing what work had been done in order to access the state of the automobile. When I called the garage I was told that “due to the long line of people waiting now, please drop by the ( לקפוץ) garage in person and we will try to assist you”. The aforementioned garage has a severe parking problem; extracting the receipt and job order took me 4 hours.

Each step of the way, it was clear to me that no one cared. No one wanted to advocate for me. Why? Because a system has been put in place to prevent proper customer care. The customer is no longer a customer, but a pain in the ass. The maintenance of the system, however stupid, is the customer.  A new form of Leninism. The centrality of the Party, or in this case, the system.

It seems to me that people who care for the customer are people must be willing to take on their own organization, fight their own employer tooth and nail, in order to give service. They need to care about the customer, not the system, to get things done.

Like the lady from the parking meter company. I called her to cancel my parking meter subscription for my old car and transfer it to my new car. Her system was down, but she promised to call me back-and she did. “In the meantime, if someone uses your parking meter, I’ll strIke off the bill. Don’t worry. Here is my email if something slips through the net. I’m not supposed to do it, but I see you waited 25 minutes waiting for me and I’m sorry for that”.

Or the insurance agent who told me that “I’ll make sure that you are reimbursed without that God dammed car license. The insurance company is trying to get you to do their work”.

What actually is caring? In this case it is

  • Over-extending your role as needed to get the job done
  • Putting the client’s legitimate needs first
  • Following up on your own initiative
  • Using common sense when the system does not work
  • Challenging the system when needed

And I wonder just how many companies recruit for a caring attitude? I am sure that very few. Customer care is really not in anyone’s interest. You only get cared for by caring people.


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Customer service is dead. Long live the digital experience

Your flight is 4 hours late? You have a problem. Call our agent, in Budapest at 3 euros per minute.

You haven’t saved your receipts from 1999? You have another problem? No refund.

You changed credit cards and cannot remember the last 4 numbers of your previous card? You have a yet another problem. You cannot stop paying for something you did not buy.

Your car was stolen? Welcome to a digital hell.

And so on and so forth.

Oh yes: you need to talk to a customer service agent: wait until you have listened to entire irrelevant voice menu, then press 9 and you will be told to “please call later, as all our attendants are presently busy”.

You do not need to be a rocket scientist to get the drift of why this had happened. All you need to do is read this post, albeit I myself am not a rocket scientist: just an old OD consultant with a brain that still works.

Here we go:

  • The voice menu-which not only directs you where you need to go, but also makes sure that it is very hard to reach an attendant.
  • Digitalization erects a firewall of business processes which always seems not to work, or, not address that specific problem that you encounter.
  • Working from home which eventually lessens the bond between the service provider and the sense of belonging to the company that provides the service.
  • The culture of “shadow work”, whereby the service provider gets you to work for them. “Do you see that red cable under your router? It’s green? Ok. Take it out and put it in the yellow hole. You don’t have a yellow hole? Take a picture and send me a picture of what your router looks like”.
  • The low cost of goods. You bought a ticket from Rome to Copenhagen for 40 Euro return. You get what you pay for.
  • The low level of solidarity between brands and their customer base as well as employees and their company.
  • Good service and customer loyalty are not worth it in the short run. And in the long run? Who cares, really? Yes, we say we care but actually we don’t. Most businesses don’t give a shit anymore.

What can OD do? Nothing for the most. It’s a societal trend much more powerful than we are. The only thing we can do is help develop niche businesses who are interested in truly serving their clients. In action, this is a very small market.

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