Guerrillas in Your Midsts

Do you Have Guerrillas in your Midsts?  Perhaps you should as they can be a source of innovation and organizational renewal.  This field guide can help you identify them starting with a description:

Organizational Guerrillas are individuals or teams that achieve corporate objectives using asymmetric and highly flexible tactics.  They may do these activities with overt blessing of the organization or they may achieve the objectives despite the indifference or active hostility of the organization against those objectives being accomplished.

The habitat for Organizational Guerrillas seems to have shrunk over the years.  For example you used to be able to find them in quality circles, employee-empowerment-enclaves or the Kaizen Jungle.  Today, an Organizational Guerrilla is just as likely to be in the cubicle or office next to you.  Given their possible proximity, the question for the organization is whether to support or discourage their guerrilla fighters.

What is a Guerrilla?

While guerrilla war tactics have been around as long as there have been larger armies invading smaller ones, the word comes to us from Napoleonic era.  Battles two hundred years ago involved masses of men shooting largely inaccurate weapons at each other at relatively short distances in the hope that a musket or cannon ball would find its mark.  Bright colour uniforms and precision military drilling were necessary so this blunt force could be maneuvered around the battle field to achieve objectives and react to change.  Napoleon excelled at this type of battle – and then he invaded Spain.   There small bands of men harassed the larger fighting forces of Napoleon’s allies.  While these small bands could never win the war, they could cause the larger army to lose it, in the words of a Prussian Officer:

“Wherever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived — they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible center which could be attacked.”

Prussian officer during the Peninsular War, while fighting with French regulars against Spanish guerrillas

Guerrillas in the Organizational Midsts

So like an army from two hundred years ago, organizations excel at directing large bodies of resources toward an objective. But what happens when you have a multiple objectives to achieve, many that do not lend themselves to brute force? Even worse, what happens when these larger resources have stretched your logistics and supply lines beyond their capacity? What happens if your organization manages these challenges by relying on ‘Management through Magical Process’? A partial answer for your organization may be the Guerrillas in the Organizational Midsts.

A Little Guerrilla Fighting is a Good Thing

One of the reasons why Organizational Guerrillas can be hard to spot is that are often camouflaged as good, self-motivated employees. Southwest Airlines, provides a good example.

Once, when a passenger, also a famous author in a hurry forgot to carry his identity card with him, it created a problem at the airport check in counter, where verifying the passengers ID is now mandatory. Any other airline would first insist on a formal ID card, and then make the customer wait as the check in clerk asked his supervisor for authorization, who in turn forwarded the request to the manager, and so forth, until the passenger missed the flight. But not at Southwest. The empowered check in clerk could verify the identity of the passenger, an author from the cover of his published book, and let him through.

Bright Hub: How Employee Empowerment Has Pushed Companies Ahead

Perhaps you have noticed a double edge sword in the above example.  On the one hand an employee nobly applied a creative and innovative solution to identifying a passenger, but on the other hand the employee likely violated both corporate policy and US Federal law.

This is where an organization needs to decide whether to tolerate guerrilla’s in their midsts.  Ideally Southwest Airlines commended the individual employee.  At the same time though, the Airline must also work with its check in agents to explain this one exception does not a corporate policy make.  This is a case where for very good reasons (regulations, risk of litigation, terrorism) the organization will need to commend the initiative but ban the activity.

What Guerrilla Fighting is Not

There is a grey zone when an individual steps from being simply a good employee doing one’s job well to being an Organizational Guerrilla.  That line is when an individual has taken a personal risk to achieve an organizational objective.  The Southwest check-in agent could have been fired or even charged with an offense – because of this personal risk, the agent was definitely an Organizational Guerrilla.

To carry the military metaphor to the breaking point (or maybe a bit beyond), guerrilla units still require discipline and structure.  Thus law-breaking or breaking the trust of the organization can never be tolerated.  The “Organization” part of the nom de guerre is important; guerrillas accomplish objectives the organization has established.  US Federal Aviation law notwithstanding, the Southwest check-in agent took a personal but still reasonable risk by allowing the famous author on the plane.

The Down Side of Being a Guerrilla in the Midsts


Perhaps at this point you might be inclined to wear your Che Guevara t-shirt to work and shout viva la revolution!  Unfortunately there is a down side to Guerrilla Objectives.  To start, real guerrillas live in bug infested jungles with a precarious supply line and an even more uncertain future.  Che Guevara was executed and called a terrorist.  It is nearly impossible to parlay a guerrilla action into larger strategy without organizational support. Without this larger context, real guerrilla fighters have a nasty habit of becoming war lords or criminal organizations.  Finally, the organization is not the enemy.  It may be an indifferent ally but at the end of the day, unless there is illicit or unethical activity in the organization, it has established the objectives the guerrilla fighters are trying to achieve.

How to Come Out of the Midsts

So, if you want to be a weekday guerrilla fighter. Three pieces of Organizational Guerrilla advice to avoid execution or having to sleep in bug-infested-jungles:

  1. Find a senior level sponsor/ally.  This is the person who will help your convert a small guerrilla victory into a larger organizational strategy.
  2. Don’t lose contact with the sponsor/ally.  Stay in contact with your sponsor and continue to feed/receive intelligence from them.
  3. Cut your losses and fight another day.  Cut your losses when surprise, subterfuge or camouflage has failed you. You cannot win them all and you will probably (ideally should) have more failures than successes.

So, are you a guerrilla fighter, have you accomplished Guerrilla Objectives? Does your company encourage, discourage or is oblivious to the Organizational Guerrillas in its Midsts?  Do you have an example of a guerrilla action being successful? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.