In 1908 the Cambridge classical scholar, FM Cornford, published Microcosmographia Academica, a satirical guide to university politics. The lively pamphlet, whose title is Greek for the study of a tiny academic world, announced itself as a guide for ambitious twentysomethings.
In it Cornford described the rule of inaction known as the Dangerous Precedent: “You should not do an admittedly right action now for fear you, or your equally timid successor, should not have the courage to do right in some future case.” He went on to add that every public action that is not customary “either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”
The Dangerous Precedent sits alongside Cornford’s other principle: the Wedge. “You should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.”
When Cornford reprinted his pamphlet 15 years later, his experience of the first world war had shown him the wider relevance of his observations. It is still passed around in university circles — colleagues new to the work are incredulous when they hear it was written more than a century ago.
But the characteristics of organisational failure are timeless. There are striking parallels between Cornford’s advice and a slightly newer document, which has recently resurfaced. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual — produced in the second world war by the US Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency — was designed to illustrate how, at little risk to themselves, saboteurs in occupied territories could damage organisations.
The Wedge and Dangerous Precedent are echoed in the OSS: “Advocate caution: Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”
Cornford anticipated modern regulatory practice: “The more rules you can invent, the less need there will be to waste time over puzzling about right and wrong. The best sets of rules are those which prohibit important, but perfectly innocent, actions.”
The merit of such regulations, he wrote, is that, having nothing to do with right or wrong, they help to “obscure these troublesome considerations in other cases, and to relieve the mind of all sense of obligation towards society”.
In similar vein, the OSS urges its saboteurs to “insist on doing everything through ‘channels’. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions . . . 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.” Or as Cornford aptly put it: “Questions of procedure will furnish you with many reasons for wasting time.”
Another “sport” for time-wasting is “comma hunting”. Start a comma, he wrote, and “the whole pack will be off, full cry, especially if they have had a literary training”. Likewise the OSS urged readers to summon up the pedantic spirits. “Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision,” the spooks advised, adding that irrelevant questions should be brought up frequently. “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.”
For Cornford, the purpose of these procedures is to minimise the “dangerous feeling” of a sense of responsibility by never allowing anyone to act without consulting at least 20 others who regard them with well-founded suspicion. This observation goes to the heart of the matter. The wide exercise of power without responsibility, often in the name of democracy or participation, is at best a recipe for organisational paralysis and at worst a mechanism for actual sabotage, as is the substitution of procedural rules for individual judgment.
At this time of year, recall that OSS urges saboteurs to “make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.” Or as Cornford explains: “You will be allowed to go on until everyone in the room will vote with you sooner than hear your voice another minute. Then you should move for adjournment.”
We have all been there, heard that. Time for Christmas adjournment.