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Monday, December 21, 2020
Effects of wartime spy plan can be seen in offices today
What can we learn about organizational politics from the most successful Allied deception of the Second World War?
“Operation Mincemeat,” by Ben Mcintyre, is a meticulously researched book, and also an unintended case study of organizational politics in the 21st century.
What was Operation Mincemeat? In the winter of 1943, the tide had turned in the North African campaign. The Allies were pushing the enemy back and were planning to invade occupied Europe. Sicily was the assumed target for this invasion; this attack would be the largest amphibious invasion in history. But the Axis powers had anticipated this attack and were fortifying their positions in southern Italy. The Allies needed a distraction. They needed to convince the Germans that the invasion would not land in Sicily.
British analysts knew that Hitler feared an invasion of Greece, and for good reason. A landing in Greece could become the lower arm of a huge vice that could trap the Germans on the eastern front between an army from North Africa and the advancing Soviets. How could the British convince the Germans that this invasion would land in Greece, and not Sicily? British spy agents devised an audacious scheme.
The plan started with an unclaimed body in London. The body was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marine officer, and a briefcase was handcuffed to his wrist. This briefcase held letters between senior British commanders describing a plan for an Allied invasion of Greece. A wallet containing shopping receipts, ticket stubs, fake identification, a picture of a girlfriend and even a love letter was planted on the body. This body was released from a Royal Navy sub off the Spanish coast. A sardine fisher picked it up and informed authorities.
The Spaniards, neutral but supportive of the Nazis, notified the German embassy. Wishfulness then took over; Nazi intelligence agents believed the plans for an invasion of Greece. Eager to please Hitler, these agents made sure that copies of these concocted plans were soon on their Fuhrer’s desk. When the invasion of Sicily took place in July 1943, Hitler had reinforced his army in Greece with five Panzer divisions to wait for an invasion that never came. The Germans had swallowed this deception hook, line and sinker. Why?
Adm. John Godfrey, the former director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi espionage bureaucracy: “wishfulness” and “yesmanship.” Wishfulness is the tendency to believe whatever supports a favoured worldview while simultaneously rejecting all contradictory views. Godfrey believed that the Nazi high command, when presented with two contradictory analyses, would believe the option that best matched their preconceptions.
Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of ambition, but also out of fear. In organizations which have dire consequences for defying authority, like the Nazi command bureaucracy, wishfulness can give rise to deadly levels of yesmanship.
When I read Godfrey’s analysis, it struck me that his dynamics of wishfulness and yesmanship are still at work in every organization I have ever been a part of, either as a client, an employee, a contractor or a consultant.
How can we inoculate ourselves against wishfulness and yesmanship? Our intuition tells us when we are in an organization that is too careful. An extreme sense of cautiousness, combined with a paralyzing fear of sending the wrong message can stifle innovation. Do we understand the costs of being too careful?
Wishfulness and yesmanship can sabotage any organization. Only vigilance, a willingness to take risks and authentic trust can stop self-deception from becoming a gateway to self-destruction.