Internal Assassin Teams: The Best Protection for Crises

While there are no sure-fire methods that will guarantee that one is prepared for any and all crises, Internal Assassin Teams are among the best of all of the known alternatives. At the same time, it’s also one of the hardest things to do emotionally for it requires thinking of as many ways as possible of attacking one’s organization, institution, and society in the worst of all imaginable means. 

Years ago, in hopes of learning what drug companies were doing to protect themselves from Product Tampering, the major threat that perpetually hung over the entire industry, I visited a major pharmaceutical company. I asked the person who agreed to talk with me what they were doing to combat it. Given the 1982 poisonings of Tylenol capsules, which was the single event most responsible for starting the entire field of Crisis Management (CM), Product Tampering had only become even more important. 

Without hesitating at all, he said, “We’ve formed several Internal Assassin Teams.” To which I blurted out, “You did what?!”

(As an important aside, the teams varied according to the educational level of its members. Thus, some had members with no more than with a high school education, while others had those with PhDs.) 

“Yeah, one day we held up a bottle of one of our pain killers, and we looked at the cap as the front door of a house, and the sides as the walls. We then asked ourselves the hard question, ‘How could a burglar break in, remain undetected for as long as possible, and cause the most damage?’ We quickly learned that there were no sure-fire ways to keep a determined burglar out so that tamper-proof bottles were completely out of the question. The best we could come up with is tamper-evident seals so that if a bottle was compromised, a consumer would be alerted immediately.”

In the many years since, I’ve been able to use the Internal Assassin Team exercise with a very few organizations. Most do not want to go through an exercise that forces them to contemplate the worst that not only can–even worst will most likely–happen to them. In a nutshell, very few organizations can undertake such exercises. They certainly cannot do it entirely by themselves. They need the considerable help of outsiders who are not afraid to ask the most uncomfortable of questions. They also need them to take the heat for putting them through an emotionally trying exercise.

Can you imagine what might have happened if Facebook had used an Internal Assassin Team exercise prior to or soon after the launch of its “product”? Hopefully, it would have picked up and taken appropriate corrective action with regard to its being used as a major vehicle for Cyberbullying, not to mention the spread of the worst conspiracy theories and dis and misinformation. 

The point is that the abuses, misuses, and unintended consequences of technology need to be viewed as different distinct forms of Product Tampering. The category has been broadened by the nature and scope of technology itself. Indeed, the most onerous case is genetic modification. The worries are all-too-real that it can be used by nefarious actors to create half-human like monsters. The body itself is thereby the “ultimate product that is ripe for tampering”  

Given the direct interference in our elections by foreign governments, the “body” is no less than the whole of society, the veritable “Body Politic!”

In brief, while Product Tampering is not the only kind of crisis for which one needs to be prepared, it’s one of the most universal. It applies to every organization, institution, and aspect of society.

In fact, with little modification, all of the other types of crises can be viewed as different, distinct types of Product Tampering. Thus, Ethical Breaches can be viewed as tampering with the Ethical and Moral foundations of an organization, institution, etc. 

In this regard, all of the various forms and types of crises can be reinterpreted as different ways of causing deliberate harm by altering the attributes of the environment, organizations, institutions, and whole societies. 

  • Product recalls/defective products 
  • Product/service tampering  
  • Employee sabotage/nefarious actors 
  • Fires/explosions/chemical spills
  • Environmental disasters/climate change 
  • Significant drop in revenues/financial 
  • Natural Hazards
  • Loss of confidential/sensitive information/privacy
  • Terrorism
  • Pandemics

In this way, Product Tampering is indeed the most universal type. And, while not perfect, Internal Assassin Teams are the best defense of which we know. 

Pogo’s words have never been more apt, “We’ve met the enemy, and he is us!” The only defense we have is Thinking the Unthinkable, and then doing everything we can to counteract it before someone does it to us!

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
This entry was posted in Blog, Business, Crisis Management and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.