Retreat to Advance*

The first and usually deciding objection to taking time to share learning and develop innovations in the police service is this: We Don’t Have the Time.  In my opinion the time objection is one of those default positions that organizations tend to create.  If it were only a matter of finding time, chiefs and senior leaders would find it easy to integrate shared learning into the work week.  In every police department, less than 50% of the time of line service personnel is taken up by responding to demand from the public.  In 1986, the late, great Bob Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucqueroux found that only 20% of patrol time is taken up by calls for service.  The rest we call “uncommitted.”

In this new economic era of constrained public budgets we may find that we commit more than 20% of patrol time to calls. But we are also much more productive than we were were in the 1980’s.  In the 20 minutes that PO Jones spends at a call today she provides a much more comprehensive and effective range of services than was available to the officer of 25-30 years ago.

If we agree on the value of the professional development of officers and of the innovations in strategy that would come from shared learning, and if time, per se, is not the barrier, then what is in our way?

As is often the case, in my opinion, the problem proceeds from the paradigms and cognitive biases of organizational culture.  This is true in all bureaucratic organizations and is by no means unique to police and CJ. By our actions we define policing as an emergency service.  And when I am one of those 12-15% of callers who is experiencing the real emergency I am happy as hell that you have done so.  The cost is the creation of what George Kelling calls “a culture of hurrying.”

AT&T dedicated the digits and software wizardry, but cops in the US created 9-1-1.  In my view, 9-1-1 is the greatest government service in the history of human society.  This is only more true in the age of digital mobile communications devices.  I can be on the porta-johnny in the woods and when I call 9-1-1 the best-trained, most skilled and authorized officer of the municipal corporation will fly to help me, his speed governed not by his schedule but how I describe my predicament.  9-1-1 is a marvel of our age of republican democracy.

Our language signifies the cultural barriers to creating energy, time and space for shared learning.  Our line personnel are “on” when driving around and “off” when responding to a call for help.  Further, the emotional and psychological demands of the stuff of the response require than just a consideration of time.  Police also need time (that we seldom create) to decompress from flying to the aid of people in horrible distress of all and any kind(s).  This we also have known for a long time. Trojanowicz and Bucqueroux wrote,

In the case of police officers, what makes analyzing their job so difficult is that their relationship with the community they serve is so complicated. As Spencer Parrat observed back in 1937, “Police administration is a composite of many variables, behaviors, states of mind or attitudes and external conditioning factors” (Parrat, 1937: 895-905).

We have also fostered some powerful work habits and myths.  (The term “myths” used here refers not to the sense of something being made-up but to the stories that reflect what a culture values and believes.)

Many officers like the mix of individual and social time that makes up a shift.  I don’t recall ever hearing of officers demanding less driving around time as a point in labor negotiations.  Also, collective learning and action runs against the grain of the “hero myth” that has grown up alongside responding at high speeds to emergencies and urgencies.  POs are like surgeons.  They evaluate themselves on having the balls (whether female or male) and the right mix of IQ, wit and brawn to save the day.  This is a powerful myth.

All this having been said, we miss critical information and knowledge when we do not engage in learning and innovation activities with our line personnel.  The beginnings of a solution are the following, I think.

  • Top managers and leaders should do an analysis of the totality of what officers are experiencing in terms of output on calls for service.  What are the costs in terms of time, opportunity,  emotional, psychological and physical impacts of the demand on police for emergency/urgency services?
  • Once every three months all officers, detectives and supervisors will cycle through a half-shift debriefing and innovations retreat.  In my experience when you get officers talking about what they have learned in terms of improving and making more efficient the services they provide, they process a lot of pent-up emotional and psychological pressure.  In this way we can enhance the health of our officers without putting them in the untenable position (another artifact of the hero culture) of saying they have a problem or don’t understand something.

I imagine how much smarter and more effective  departments would be after doing this for a year.  Every debrief/retreat would be a graduate seminar in social psychology with the cops as students and teachers.  Oh, what they would learn! Leaders would also continually improve their techniques for getting the most learning, innovation and healing from the sessions.

This Globe article shows this process in action in the tech sector.  You only need a little imagination to see it in the training room.

*This posting comes from our Shameless Self-Promotion Division.  I facilitate retreats for a living.  I believe in their value, I have seen the value demonstrated and I really enjoy doing the work with police and other CJ organizations.

More companies include retreat time to innovate


Software engineer Snejana Shegheva knew her company had a problem explaining its complicated technology to clients.

She wanted a simpler way to demonstrate how the firm, DataXu, which provides online marketing services, uses mathematical formulas to determine when and where clients should buy advertising on websites. Then, as any good geek does, she was watching a favorite television show, “Spongebob Squarepants,” when inspiration struck.

“Spongebob was teaching Patrick how to blow bubbles. First the bubble was huge and beautiful, but complicated. Then the bubble burst into thousands of smaller, simpler bubbles.”

Shegheva thought, what if DataXu broke out all the information it churns through every day into individual bubbles — and bubbles within bubbles — each a floating, clickable sphere providing an insight into the media-buying decision?

So several weeks ago Shegheva took the idea to DataXu’s semiannual “Innovation Day,” where she and colleagues got a break from work to tinker with new ideas. The result was a new data visualization tool that gave clients and colleagues significantly more information about an advertising campaign.


DataXu officials said the company’s innovation days are a chance for employees to exercise their minds in new areas without rules or hierarchy.

Time was, companies held the corporate retreat, where the bosses and managers would huddle in some off-site location to noodle over ways to improve the business. But today, especially in the technology sector, companies hold innovation days, or hacking sessions, where employees are given time away from the daily grind to work on projects that excite them. Some sessions are highly structured, tackling an already identified problem; others are more free-form, allowing employees to pursue the more whimsical.

“The question is, how do you create a pipeline of innovation?” said Patrick Supanc, founder of Boston education start-up, Alleyoop, which holds “hackathons” where employees tackle specific problems. “Creating dedicated time is really important. It’s tough to scale innovation when the only time to innovate is on nights and weekends.”

Dedicated innovation days have become popular within the technology industry thanks in part to Google Inc. Early on in its corporate life, the search engine giant introduced the idea of “20 percent time,” where employees were encouraged to devote roughly one-fifth of their time on ideas they dreamed up themselves, said Ryan Tate, author of “20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business.”

“Google created the expectation that there will be ‘play time’ at work,” said Tate, pointing out that several major products, including Gmail and Google Reader were born from employees noodling on their 20 percent time.

Backed by publishing giant Pearson Education Inc., Alleyoop provides teens with customized online tutoring in math and science. At its first hackathon this summer one team sought to add game-playing attributes to lesson plans: in this case, to see if competition among students would stimulate learning.

“Six weeks later, we had a leader board in use,” said Supanc, and now Alleyoop clients can compare their performance against other students online. “There are a lot of innovative ideas floating around in people’s heads, but it’s hard to bring them into fruition. That’s what these events can do.”

At Kayak, the online travel site with operations in Concord, executives set aside a whole week for the pursuit of the innovative. Primarily to develop team building, Kayak’s hack week has produced new ideas that benefit customers, such as direct booking, which allows travelers to conduct all their travel business — flights, hotels, and cars — without leaving the website.

“We try not to rule out the most radical ideas, but rather to winnow out some of the weaker concepts,” said Kayak chief architect Bill O’Donnell. “Generally, we’ll let people do what they want if they are passionate about it.”

Brand Networks, a Boston software firm that provides marketing services on Facebook, has 13 projects slated for its next hack day, in December, such as an application based on the antigay bullying campaign, “It Gets Better.”

“We encourage everyone to use 10 percent of their time dreaming up new ideas.’’ said chief executive Jamie Tedford, who said the best results from hack day will be implemented immediately. “The only guidepost is that they need be social by nature and fit with and extend our core offerings.”

Not everyone in the tech world is convinced that dedicating time away from the core business is practical or effective. “I do value structural models that put time and resources behind ideas,” said Guy Podjarny, chief product officer at Akamai Technologies, the Internet services company in Cambridge.

But Akamai doesn’t have a policy that sets specific time aside. Instead, Podjarny said, there is an ongoing culture of innovation that encourages employees to pitch ideas, the best of which are pursued by the company.

At DataXu, Shegheva’s Spongbob bubbles have morphed into a working prototype that will be refined at another session in December. Bill Simmons, DataXu’s chief technology officer, said the innovation day is a chance for his employees to exercise their minds in new areas without rules or hierarchy.

“We have benefited immensely from the ideas generated through innovation day with many of DataXu’s most innovative products resulting from innovation day ideas,’’ Shegheva said. “We feel strongly that in order to stay ahead in a competitive market we need to tap into all of our employees’ creativity because our employees are passionate about building the best product for our customers.”

Meanwhile Shegheva is convinced her idea would have languished if she hadn’t had the chance to explore it with colleagues on DataXu’s innovation day.

“It’s important to completely get outside your level of comfort,” Shegheva said. Otherwise, she said, you might fail to notice that “even Spongebob can be an inspiration.”


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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