Cuckoo Culture Vol III - How the CIA and military helped us make decisions

Alexander Fitzgerald


Cuckoo Culture Vol III

This is a short primer on how we make decisions at Cuckoo, through the prism of the past. If you’re looking to scale up a business, a charity or any organisation of humans this could be helpful to you.

I would rather rein in the overeager stallion, than prod the reluctant mule - Moshe Dayan, Israeli General

Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learnt from the military and the CIA (via the internet not face to face...):

  • Military: The principle of mission command. The senior leadership define the mission/goal. Teams (usually small) then define how they’ll get there.
  • CIA: The Simple Sabotage Field Manual tells us what no to do. Essentially, if its slows decision making down, don’t do it...

So what does this means for Cuckoo? Our central mission is to make the internet frictionless. Our near term goal is to become the largest and most loved ISP in the UK. We have a core set of metrics that we think are important. We highlight our four values in everything we do. We divide into Teams, Squads and Initiatives to get stuff done. Teams are groups of people that fall under a specific function e.g. Growth, Design, Technology or Service. Squads are multi-disciplinary, cross-functional, autonomous teams and Initiatives are what Squads work on and build. We empower Teams, Squads and Initiatives to define their own goals, at their own cadence through the prism of our mission, goals, metrics and values.

Read on for a bit more context.

Germany and Mission Command

After Napolean defeated a pale, male and stale German defence establishment in the 19th Century, a new way of war gained prominence. This new theory loosely held that the world is complex and imperfect. You can’t expect a central planning committee to dictate how war at a tactical level should be waged. So the idea from Moltke The Elder (a student of the famous Clausewitz) was Auftragstaktik or Mission Command. There’s a great book on this very subject from Eitan Shamir, looking at the British, American and Israeli military.

Here are the key learnings about how to make mission command successful (and hence our learnings for Cuckoo):

  • Mutual trust > We build this through living by our values in everything we do (treating each other, customers or the outside world)
  • Shared understanding > We build this by an openly and fluidly sharing information.
  • Clear commander's intent > We do this by consistently highlighting our mission, goal, metrics and values.
  • Disciplined initiative > We build a culture where people find their own problems to fix. This is a constant endeavour.
  • Use mission orders > We define goals so that small teams now which direction to head.
  • Accept prudent risk > We build this by not reacting negatively to changes in expectation and by leaders taking ownership of potential bad results, ahead of time.

The CIA guide to corporate sabotage

I learnt about this CIA guide at my first ever job.

It was the leaving drinks of the Treasury’s Permanent Secretary Nicholas Macpherson (the top civil servant). He started quoting lines about what attendees initially thought was a guide about how to be a civil servant “always rely on committees”, “bring up irrelevant issues” and “haggle over precise wording”. What he was actually quoting from was a document written by the CIA during the Second World War (then called the Office for Strategic Services).

The guide is available online as it was declassified and makes for some fascinating reading.

CIA declassified field manual

Here’s what the CIA guide for office sabotage taught us:

Cuckoo CIA Guide

So what for Cuckoo?

We use the tools of mission command and our values, through the prism of our organisation, to decide that we do to achieve our mission and goals (judged through our metrics).

In a previous blog we said we’d answer these questions, so here goes:

  • What's important to us? Our mission, goals, metrics and values.
  • Are we hierarchical or decentralised? Decentralised.
  • Do we wait for total agreement or do we "disagree and commit"? Disagree and commit.
  • Is it important to get decisions perfect or to get them made? Get them made.
  • How do we reflect on decisions we've made previously? Are they open to challenge and re-making? Regular re-assessment through metrics and data.
  • What do we do to ensure good decision quality? Hire great people. Focus on values, mission, goals and metrics. Then leave them to it.
  • What are our operating principles? This blog is a summary.
  • How do we use meetings? More thinking needed here!
  • Do we decide by committee or individuals? Individuals.
  • How do vetos work? Via the Senior Leadership Team.

Soon we’ll have another blog post from Tommy, our Co-Founder and VP Product to talk through the logic behind our Teams, Squads and Initiatives. All part of our plan to continue innovating in a big old broken market.

If you’ve got all way to the end, I’d really enjoy you feedback. So please do get in touch.

Switch broadband, for good.