Traditionally, public safety managers—particularly police executives—have engaged in linear thinking in the form of simplistic cause-and-effect reasoning, where problems are presented and solved sequentially. This approach became the original modus operandi of public safety organizations due to their bureaucratic and hierarchical structure.
Police executives have managed their agencies primarily by precedent, pattern, and routine. They have been far too preoccupied with the known knowns.
Unfortunately, this approach makes no provision for expansion of thought in multiple directions, from multiple perspectives and starting points. Most importantly, it makes little provision for inclusiveness, insight, or creativity. The organizational architecture simply will not support it.
Successful local government managers engage in systems thinking, whereby they gain a perspective of the entire organizational landscape and design effective sense-and-respond mechanisms to detect subtle, but nevertheless essentially important, changes in the internal and external work environments.
The structure of many public safety organizations needs to be adjusted accordingly. More importantly, the personal skill sets of their leadership must be substantially enhanced. The days are long gone when the ranking officer is presumed to be the smartest person in the room.
As Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, eloquently points out, you either have all the answers you need to manage, or you don’t; you either have an open and learning mindset, or you don’t. Each organization either has a learning orientation or a learning disability.1
Many police organizations unfortunately have a learning disability, and it tends to be the same one: a complete lack of comfort with doubt and uncertainty. I have studied police departments in 26 American states and abroad and observed the same phenomenon in the majority of them: a profound lack of comfort with change and uncertainty on the part of senior command staff.
Rather, they rely on old routines and the personal abilities and world view of only one or two key leaders. This approach subjects the entire organization to unnecessary risk.
A New Mindset
Local government managers need to do what they can to encourage the development of a new mindset among police leaders and their organizations. In many respects, this calls for a dramatic paradigm shift for these paramilitary organizations.2 For this reason, there is a need also for subtle structural shifts within these organizations.
All police organizations conduct some form of periodic command staff meetings, but the critical questions are: Do these meetings encourage strategic reasoning, insightfulness, and perseverance? Do these organizations have the ability to identify and actively manage risk, or are they simply a victim of it?
Authors Arthur Costa and Bena Killick provide a clear blueprint for radically improving command staff meetings by substantially enhancing the personal skill sets of the participants in these areas:3
Listening. An effective leader has the ability to truly listen to subordinates and to value the thoughts and insights of others.
Flexible thinking. This entails the skill of approaching a problem from various perspectives. Examples include the use of red teams in the military, where certain personnel are tasked with acting as an enemy would, in order to test existing defenses. This technique is quite similar to the use of white-hat hackers who are engaged and directed to probe and attack an organization’s IT systems.
Metacognition. This is simply thinking about thinking, setting aside think time and evaluating the quality and quantity of thinking being performed.
Questioning. This entails asking oneself, "How do I know what I know," and "What am I (or we) missing here?"
Creating, imagining, and innovating. This is where the true magic happens. It is the result of robust and honest discourse and reflective conversation. This is where the management team considers novel suggestions and new approaches. To do this effectively, all participants must understand and embrace the process of management by inquiry.
Remaining open to continuous learning. All managers must be comfortable enough to admit what they do not know. They must continuously welcome relevant new information on many subjects from all sources. It is imperative to realize that authentic and honest feedback is a gift.
The Compstat Model
Organizations wishing to acquire or to further develop the above skills would benefit greatly from a thorough examination (or perhaps re-examination) of the Compstat model of police management, which was developed in 1994 and employed effectively since that time in public service organizations, both within and outside the public safety field.4
Named after the New York City Police Department's internal accountability process, Compstat is a combination of management philosophy and organizational management tools for police departments.
When properly understood and implemented, Compstat serves the purpose of allowing senior leadership to gain the benefit of information and insights developed by field-level personnel. This is done during highly interactive Compstat meetings.
Such information rarely flows upwards in hierarchical bureaucracies where formal rank structures and pathologies like groupthink completely frustrate open and honest dialogue. Internal management conversations tend to be a one-way street in bureaucracies; this is lethal to organizational learning efforts.
All essential units are represented and participate at Compstat meetings. It is essentially the entire organizational chart present in one room, thinking out loud, questioning one another, and learning. It is based upon a simple premise: that “no one of us is as smart as all of us.” It encourages reflection, introspection, rumination and, most importantly, collaboration. The result is more intelligent decision making.
There is a large and still-growing body of literature about Compstat. Despite reports of ineffective implementation or worse still, deliberate dishonesty when reporting performance results, Compstat has proven to enhance organizational performance and to foster organizational learning in many organizations.5
Former Mayor Martin O’Malley used it as the foundation of CitiStat, a comprehensive process for managing essential services for the city of Baltimore, Maryland. He used it again to implement StateStat once he took office as Maryland governor, and he likely would have brought it with him to Washington had he succeeded in his quest for the White House. There is obviously something to it.
Neither Compstat, nor any other management model will succeed, however, if it is merely mimicked. Senior leadership must adopt an entirely new mindset.6 They must have the confidence to ask for input from many different sources, regardless of rank, and they must truly listen.
I do not propose turning these organizations into complete democracies since, at the end of the day, the boss is still the boss, and he or she ultimately owns each important decision. I do propose that the boss simply get beyond the fear of appearing weak or indecisive and begin to ask more questions.
Most importantly, he or she must listen because it is then far less likely that unforeseen risks will completely elude detection.
Endnotes and Resources
1 Dweck, Carol. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books; New York.
2 O'Connell, Paul. (2001). "Using Performance Data for Accountability: The New York City Police Department’s Compstat Model of Police Management," IBM Center for the Business of Government, Washington, D.C.
3 Costa, Arthur and Bena Kallick. (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, Virginia.
4 O'Connell, Paul and Frank Straub. (2007). Performance-based Management for Police Organizations, Waveland Press, Long Grove, Illinois.
5 Roeder, Oliver, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling. (2015). What Caused the Crime Decline? Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.
6 Bratton, William J. and Sean W. Mailinowski. (2008). "Police Performance Management in Practice: Taking COMPSTAT to the Next Level." Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Oxford University Press, No. 3, pp. 259-265.