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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