Shoot-to-Kill Policy, Shock, Awe and Change Management

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 08-11-2005

Shoot-to-Kill Policy, Shock, Awe and Change Management

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
—Benjamin Franklin

Last month's mistaken execution of a London commuter by British security forces holds a management lesson worth learning for all kinds of organizations—from governmental to corporate to professional practices.

The security personnel appear to have carried out their orders by the book. But those who put the policy into place, people in the British government, blundered into a classic management snake pit that American executive teams fall into far too often.

The Poms' lethal gaffe is the result of two colossal clangers, one I'll name "The Polaroid Instant Blunder" and the other I call "The Etinuum Error."

The government secretly put a "shoot to kill" preventative execution policy into place for the police.

That policy only became known because the men and women doing their jobs executed a man commuting to work with five shots to the head at close range. He turned out to be an innocent bystander.

Part of what made backlash so strong to this management blunder is that the action is very un-British.

Unlike over-amped police in New York City and some Third World countries like Guatemala, the police in Britain don't normally kill non-Irish people only to discover the target was an innocent person. Aggressive policing is not part of their national self-image.

The policy, as reported by London's Sunday Times, allowed a senior commander to authorize police to execute without warning people suspected of carrying a bomb.

The goal was to prevent potential suicide bombers from doing the psychopath thing; police were apparently directed to shoot at the head to take out the suspect without setting off the device with gunfire.

I won't argue about the merits of preventative execution (the ultimate "no strikes, you're out" form of enforcement).

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I have a personal opinion that's not germane to the lesson in this example; I do see both the logic around which the policy became operational and why it guarantees the public execution of innocent people.

Police needed new procedures; change was required; the procedures chosen were radically different from any historical precedent the country has known within its borders since, I believe, The Restoration (1660).

The problem I want to discuss is the fact that, like too many big corporate change initiatives, the bosses didn't consult stakeholders and didn't even pretend to listen before making a change that would be seen by the stakeholders as not just very different, but possibly antithetical to their self-image.

It's hard to equate any corporate flub to the erroneous execution of an innocent, but the mistakes British officials made in keeping their policy secret is one that corporations make way too frequently.

The perfect corporate poster dude for this is the recent devastation of the Polaroid research department (the company's crown jewel) by the new conglomerate owner.

Rather than uphold the tradition of innovation that is at the very core of Polaroid's identity, the new owners decided to simply attach the name as a "brand" to goods designed by cheaper outfits.

If you're going to change a research-to-product company into an OEM that pastes stickers on products built by other companies, you can get away with hiding the truth from your customers, at least for a while.

Next Page: The coverup is the more persistent problem.

The Coverup is the

More Persistent Problem">

But you have to telegraph the punch to all your employees so those that survive the inevitable layoffs buy into your plan, and don't let the identity crisis undermine their effectiveness.

Apparently, Polaroid's owners didn't bother with this, and the effect on the survivors has devastated productivity.

They just had a tin ear for what it would be like to change their self-identity as though it's swapping one Kmart clip-on tie for another.

They, and the U.K. government, made what I call the Etinuum Error—a tendency to keep policies secret even when the secret is bound to be uncovered and, when revealed, will create shockwaves more severe and costly than if the policy was public from the beginning.

I worked for a short period for a company called Etinuum, a dot-com whose executive team was perhaps the most functionally dysfunctional I've ever worked with or for.

They decided to do a big layoff and re-org to raise Wall Street's hopes for their sagging prospects.

The president held layered meetings talking about big changes, a new business plan, new models and methods. From people at the very highest levels, he invited input and listened a little.

He invited directors to comment and ignored their comments. He had the directors tell the managers and get their comments, and ignored the managers as well. Everyone lower in the great chain of being was ignored totally.

The president made his decisions, and the executive cabal compartmentalized all the knowledge and news by level and by department, like a Communist sleeper cell.

Everything was kept secret from everyone who didn't have a "need to know," and everyone was instructed to tell no one, so no one knew enough to know the whole story.

And every level was supposed to keep everything secret for every other level and group.

The president imagined, his ship, like the Titanic, was unsinkable because of his ornate revolutionary sealed compartments.

Verily, the president was playing divide and conquer. No one knew how to carry out the plan because the justification had been kept from everyone.

Everything that happened every day was an invention no one could have foreseen. No one had any goals and objectives against which to make decisions.

Having not designed the plan so they could all hang together, they all hung separately.

Morale, flexibility, speed and productivity all went deep into the toilet, no one picked up missing connections in processes, hundreds of jobs and millions in shareholder value were washed away in a short time.

Here's the real thing.

The more significant the change, the more serious the result, the worse the backlash is from those who are kept in the dark.

The Etinuum debacle cost only a few hundred good-paying jobs in a recession.

The British police, on the other hand, are facing a much stronger backlash—fueled by the intensity of the situation, the finality of the execution, the fact that it occurred in front of so many witnesses, and the secrecy, which became almost incomparably much more passionate—than Polaroid and Etinuum put together.

Why do managers make these mistakes?

Sometimes corporations need to make radical changes, which are often resisted by the staff and stockholders.

The executive team, feeling beleaguered by critics, unsure of the support of their staff, and wishing to keep their competitors in the dark for as long as possible, have a lot of incentive to keep quiet.

Further, there may be ego issues involved. Managers who have to fix a problem for which they're partly to blame may not want their organizational "children" to know of their failure.

Or they may feel embarrassed having their peers at the Junior Presidents' Klub know the organization they head is struggling.

It's more likely to happen if the executive team has experienced bruises or outright failures in previous change initiatives. Executives with scars may think that if they don't ask anyone's opinion, and then don't tell what they're up to, they'll benefit somehow from delaying any kind of public knowledge, let alone acknowledgement.

Next Page: Disaster causes overreaction, secretiveness, distrust.

Disaster Causes Overreaction, Secretiveness,


It's all about the personal emotional comfort of the executives, and nothing to do with effective change.

In fact, emotional comfort may actually intensify the change you're trying to hide.

Absent the horror of having commuters blown up in the subway, what are the odds the U.K. government would have authorized a shoot-to-kill policy in London, let alone in the bucolic, small-town police forces in places like Cumbria (which, amazingly, it did. Imagine giving cops in Mayberry, RFD and Disney World sanction to perform preventative execution based on strong suspicion of an act that might happen.)

I suggest they wouldn't have authorized it if they'd had their emotions in check.

The professional way to do a big change is to first do your best to get everyone to pull together, be clear about the costs and pain, and in spite of whining and resistance and pushback, don't pretend it's all going to be the same after and that there will be no casualties.

If the change is big, there will be casualties, and in a big organization, many of them will be "innocent bystanders."

Because once the corpses start piling up, people will figure out what you're doing and, having had to figure it out for themselves, it will be almost impossible to convince them that you were doing the right thing, even if you were.

The Etinuum Error is really easy to avoid—it's based on the flimsiest of imagined benefits.

Avoid the Polaroid Instant Blunder, though, by all means—it's more subtle, but even more devastating.

No matter how effective a change initiative is in its results, nothing wreaks more havoc than surprising the victims with a set of new behaviors that are seen as the opposite of how people view themselves.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at

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