Ideas are Still Free

An op-ed piece in today’s NY TImes prompts the following:

Police personnel do a tremendous amount of learning all the time.  They notice what works and what does not work in practice.  Given how the police business has adapted over time to the many conflicting forces that act on it, it has become very difficult to turn individual learning into collective learning and new practices.

As has been argued here before  — see for example “What Policing Can Learn from Bell Labs” (April 2012) the pressures from the world-changing success of 9-1-1 and the requirement to be ready to respond 24/7/365 diminish the industry’s capacity for collective learning.  Human beings’ infinite capacity for devising new ways and new situations in which to harm themselves and others make it hard for officers and departments to find the emotional and psychological time and energy to examine their experience and share learning.  But it’s not impossible.

Why not bring some people together and compare where we invest our resources — time, effort, intellectual and emotional energy, compassion, courage and skill — with what we would most like to accomplish.  I suspect we would find some mismatches.

You can do this in a way that does not produce a backlash.  People like to be asked.  So ask them.  “What can we be doing better”? Don’t announce the new idea in that velvet-lined coffin for new initiatives: the chief’s or commissioner’s memo announcing something  on which supervisors and the line level have not been consulted.  You don’t have to be the chief to do this.  Any boss can just start asking.  Let one thing lead to another; let your ears lead the way.  Guide the process with your good questions and attention.

Here’s what software CEO  JASON FRIED (37signals, Inc.) writes in the NY Times August 18, 2012 about what he did.  Police can’t do things the way a software company can, but police can do things.

“In the spirit of continual change, this summer we tried something new. We decided to give everyone the month of June to work on whatever they wanted. It wasn’t vacation, but it was vacation from whatever work was already scheduled. We invited everyone to shelve their nonessential work and to use the time to explore their own ideas.

“People worked independently or joined up with other employees on team projects. The only rule was: explore, see if there are ways to make our existing products better, or come up with a new product idea, create a new business model, or do whatever is of most interest.

“Then, in July, we asked each person to share, with the rest of the staff, whatever idea he or she came up with, on a day we set aside as ‘Pitchday.’

“The June-on-your-own experiment led to the greatest burst of creativity I’ve seen from our 34-member staff. It was fun, and it was a big morale booster. It was also ultraproductive. So much so that we’ll likely start repeating the month-off project a few times a year.”

Why not?


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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