How to Maintain the Ultimate Corporate Secret

by Darwin on September 25, 2012

I’ve always been impressed that Apple is able to keep their product specs (and new product launches) under wraps until the day of their choosing. That’s pretty impressive given the multitude of employees, consultants, contract manufacturers, third party carriers, ad agencies and all the other people that are aware of something big months, sometimes even years in advance. They seem to have it right. The “leaks” that make it into the mainstream press are often intentional in order to build buzz around their product launches. Some companies end up with embarrassing leaks that spoil their strategy or give competitors an edge they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

For the past few years I’ve been working on something pretty big within the company as well. Aside from participating in the evaluation of an acquisition of a publicly traded company (Insider trading risks must be managed very carefully), more recently, without getting into details, the project will have pretty broad implications for the future of the company, affect hundreds of jobs and be in the media, etc.  Therefore, corporate secrecy has been extremely critical along the way.  Here are several ways we’ve controlled the flow of information within the company and how you could improve your internal controls as well for secret projects if your company doesn’t have a great deal of experience in large confidential projects:

  • Legal Threat - Of all the procedures and communications that are involved in maintaining corporate secrecy, I’d say the biggest deterrent is the threat of termination and legal action in the event one reveals the secret.  We have our in-house counsel draft something up with several key points on secrecy and implications if breaking confidentiality and that then enables you to work on the project.  Once that document is signed, we get occasional reminders from senior management about what was signed and why it’s important that we continue to honor that commitment.  Knowing I could be fired and sued certainly puts the fear in me to the point that even my wife has no idea what I’m working on and why.
  • “The List” – How do you know who you can talk to and who you can’t?  As a project moves from different phases (say, from evaluation to execution), the list of people you need to work with expands considerably.  This can be especially challenging in a large international company with hundreds of people on the list.  The list is basically a repository of confirmed employees that are known to have signed the legal document and this list should be maintained by one person, perhaps with a single backup.  This ensures there are no misunderstandings or confusion around who is aware of the project and allowed to be contacted.
  • Project Names – We usually use a codename for a project (Project Cloverfield or whatever) since it might be pretty obvious what you’re doing if you refer to the subject itself in emails, meeting invites and otherwise.  It may sound a bit cloak-and-dagger and silly at first, but if you’re involved in a project like this, all it takes is a single slip-up and the entire strategy could be blown, so all precautions must be taken to ensure nobody knows what’s being worked on.
  • Using Outlook, Emails, Calendars – There are several ways you can blow your cover even if you think you’re being careful.  You know those really annoying email bubble notifications in outlook that pop up?  Aside form being a major distraction, they can blow your entire project when your boss or co-worker is sharing their desktop for a meeting or presentation and your email rolls in. Disable those auto-notifications!  And since you can’t control what everyone else does, when I’m sending an email, I never put the real subject of the initiative or any hints in the email title or the first sentence.  I usually refer to a generic title like “new product meeting” or whatever, and then speak in generalities until I get a  sentence or two in.  Additionally, when setting up meeting invites through outlook, you MUST use the “private” setting in the meeting invite.  If you don’t, anyone who has access to the meeting room calendar, or manages someone’s calendar for them, can see all the invitees and read the content of the meeting request.  Sometimes, just knowing that 2-3 people are in the same meeting might enable people to figure out what’s going on.
  • Reinforce Business-Critical Only – People like to talk, especially if they’re working on something important.  That’s why you need to reinforce that people cannot discuss the project openly, even with other people that are already on the list, unless it is business critical.  Having a discussion in the hallway, the cafeteria or even outside of work at a bar or the airport can have devastating implications.  You’d be surprised at who else may work in industry or even your own company that you’re not aware is listening.
  • Walls Can Talk – This was really frustrating to find out, but I’ve been sitting in certain offices and conference rooms and when it’s quiet, I can hear the entire conversation in the room next to me.  Whether this is due to the ventilation system or thin walls, I’m not quite sure, but I know now that this means the person in the room next to me, or outside the door can hear my entire conversation.  For this reason, I intentionally book the office next to someone else that I know is already on the list OR I just work from home when I’m running a long meeting for that project where I’ll be talking about it a lot.  Sometimes, a basic phone call at the desk is fine when speaking in generalities because it’s not obvious what you’re talking about, but if you have to bring a new team member fully up to speed and describe all the background, that’s a conversation that needs to be protected.  Think about your office arrangements and whether you are adequately protected.  I thought this might have been a suitable argument to get me a fancy third floor office but no such luck LOL!
Anyway, these are just some of the key tips and tricks I use to maintain confidentiality on corporate projects and perhaps you’ll have use for some of these tips now or in the future.
Have You Ever Been On a Secret Project?
Any Additional Tips and Tricks?
Have You Ever Had a Cover Blown and Why?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

krantcents September 25, 2012 at 3:44 pm

When I was a consultant, I had to sign a confidentiality statement. I have no problem keeping secrets, but it is harder to control others.

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101 Centavos September 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm

I’ve been on a couple of due diligence teams (even one with a code name) and the best policy I found is to say nothing or as little as possible.
The semi-amusing thing is when two people, who have varying but unconnected tasks on the secret projects, try to discuss the project without revealing how much one knows to the other. It’s a very delicate tap dance.

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Wayne @ Young Family Finance September 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm

I can think of a few companies that probably wish they had this list a long time ago (Xerox, I’m looking at you). I particularly like the code names. It kind of makes me want to go around referring to non-confidential business items in code, just to make the job a little more interesting.

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