#Reflections on Organizational Change from Psychological Operations and Guerilla Warfare

#Reflections on Organizational Change from Psychological Operations and Guerilla Warfare

I recently finished reading the CIA Manual for Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare and thought there was some interesting parallels to driving political/organizational change in business. I want to capture those thoughts here along with my general thoughts about the book.


The book starts by defining what guerilla warfare and psychological operations is through the lens of the CIA/OSS, basically a political weapon to drive and control change. The concepts discussed throughout center around the theme of gaining and maintaining constant control of perception and framing that is in-line with the mission of the guerillas, for example resisting violent or traditional Western military tactics in the name of maintaining the trust of the target population. The following quote within the book sums things up quite nicely "The guerillas should be persuasive through the word and not dictatorial with weapons."

A few of the specific tactics that are touched upon are:

  • Avoid either violent or other psychologically dominating actions so that you or your team don't get classified as an enemy.
  • The selection of personnel is more important than your training programs.
  • "Against" is always going to be easier than "for" when attempting to persuade people.
  • Recruit the most influential members of a community and diversify them based on the kind of influence they wield (e.g., doctors, politicians, bankers, lawyers, etc.).

Parallels in Management

Now to bring this very military-esque topic into the management space, I want to map some of the tactical themes referenced above to management and leadership in the corporate world.

Avoid Violent or Other Oppressive Action in the Workplace

When you are presented with tough situations, you need to make sure that you keep your bigger goals in mind and don't respond to things in a way that oppresses or alienates your peers. This often comes through in the form of emotional responses to adversity, things like anger, withdrawal, pride, or fear will all get you into trouble if you let them. Harvard Business Review has a great article on balancing these things in the workplace, you can find that here. One thing I've found very helpful in my own career is the active application of John Boyd's OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act). The way this breaks down in practice is by applying an active analysis and situational awareness to the world around you, but coupling that with the decisiveness to act.

Selection of Personnel > Training

It is very difficult to out-train the wrong personnel, such as those that don't have a willingness to learn, work hard, aren't committed to the cause, etc. I've found in my own hiring practices that hiring people with a deep passion for your cause and an aptitude for the position you need them for will result in a more dedicated and hard working staff. This rule isn't universal of course, but it's something to keep in mind as you're building a team.

"Against" is Easier Than "For"

Let's assume that there is some legacy technologies, tools, or processes that exist within your organization. It's likely that there are both supporters for those things and those that believe the change can't come soon enough. In these cases you may have solutioneered a fix to these legacy things with your team, yet you find it difficult to actually make the change move from idea to reality. If you're running into these kinds of organizational walls then you should ask yourself two questions:

  • Which changes are the most important to me and my team?
  • Do I care more about some new change or changing to a specific solution?

The answer to the first question above will help you prioritize where you spend your time and political capital. The answer to the second question is really important as it will determine how you influence. People and teams throughout an organization likely have some preferences of their own, it's unlikely you're going to align them all towards yours. Find the common ground between all of these parties, which is that the old thing needs to go. Use the momentum centered around change to get them to nominate a champion for change, a representative to work with you, or some middle ground because the thing you're all fighting against is bigger than the independent things you're all fighting for. This was actually a central theme in this most recent presidential election when you start peeling back the layers and looking at it.

Recruit Those with Influence to your Cause

This requires you to step back and find those who are influential within your organization (social, political, or technical influencers). These people may be in positions of power already or have potential to do so, given the right opportunities. As an influential leader trying to ensure that your own mission is acknowledged throughout the organization, you need to be on the lookout for opportunities to partner with these people. Forging strong partnerships with co-influencers can be mutually beneficial, even if those individuals aren't immediately within your organizational structure.

Summing Things Up

I'm going to wrap this post up by making sure folks know that I am not trying to advocate for a malicious approach to management within an organization, despite the typical impression that guerilla warfare may provide. I do however believe that there are important lessons that can be learned about building smarter partnerships within an organization to maximize change by studying guerilla warfare and psychological operations. For those that are interested in studying the topic further, I recommend the book linked at the start of this post, the following papers are also worth a read!

About Robert Wood