The Path to Better Execution in Seeing, Understanding and Solving Complex Problems is a Learning Organization

“…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” ~Peter Senge

Most discussions, on this site focus effort on tactical decision making, tactics, officer safety, and effectiveness and the leadership and organizational culture necessary to continually improve our performance on the street and in the processes necessary to see our work through professionally throughout the criminal justice system.

A learning organization is the term given to an organization that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern police departments and enables them to remain adaptive and effective. The learning organization as a whole is agile, ready to learn, continually changing and improving. It is fast, flexible, ready to execute and never prepared to say: “We have finished getting better.” If any organization should be a learning organization it is a police department and that is why many new initiatives have been implemented, in an effort to continually improve the law enforcement profession.

A learning organization has five main features; systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning.

Systems’ thinking is a mental process that seeks to understand and represent subjects as interactively complex wholes functioning within a broader environment. System thinking is in simple terms, in the context of policing, thinking about how what I do affects what everyone else does and vice versa. In policing, it’s the criminal justice system in its entirety citizens, bad guys, cops, courts, corrections and how they interact. If you think about it for just a moment…the interaction of this system is constant. Systems’ thinking is a particular approach to trying to reason why and how things work based on the premise that practically any situation or problem can be thought of as a system of interdependent elements.

Personal mastery is simply the commitment by an individual to the process of learning and then applying what it is we know to our profession. The values of TRUST, STRENGTH OF CHARACTER, SELF-CONTROL, along with an understanding of WHY, we chose this profession and to operate in a purpose driven manner, are to compliment classic values and attributes toward good law enforcement problem solving and decision making.

Below are a few key attributes a law enforcement officer should aim to continually improve:

  • Rapid decision maker -this enables rapid decision-making without conscious awareness or effort.
  • Critical thinker-the ability to achieve understanding, evaluates viewpoints, and solves problems.
  • Self-aware-an understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Social skills-the ability, to assess people’s strengths and weaknesses, the use of communication skills, and the art of listening.
  • Honesty-executes with fairness and straightforward conduct.
  • Forward looking-maintains situational awareness and able to anticipate problems and take calculated risks.
  • Inspiring-able to arouse unity, focus and execution.
  • Competent-possesses knowledge and critical skills and can translate “knowledge and skills” to real world problems.
  • Tenacity-resilient and able to adapt accordingly by maintaining focus of effort on overall intent of mission.
  • Open-mindedness-the ability to look at other viewpoints and options while continuing to learn, unlearn and relearn while solving problems.
  • The assumptions held by individuals and organizations are called mental models and we all have them. Some work, some use to work, and many don’t work any longer. Some of the problems we face are known as wicked problems which in this sense does not imply evil, but rather intensely challenging and complex and refer to primarily social problems that are particularly difficult and confusing, though not necessarily irresolvable (sounds a lot like police work doesn’t it?).

    John Schmitt in his outstanding work on operational design states that;

    “Wicked problems have better or worse solutions, not right or wrong ones. There is no objective measure of success in dealing with wicked problems. No objective method exists for determining the correctness of a solution, as exists for a math or physics problem. What exists is a mess a complex tangle of conditions which only becomes a problem when someone decides that the conditions are unsatisfactory.”

    With wicked problems we often have a novel situation, something we never seen before so you may have no mental model to fall back on requiring you explore the problem deeper and use a combination of creative and rational decision making to solve the problem. As the world changes and the types of problems and crises we face evolve, we to must learn and evolve in our methods if we are to continually improve and become more effective. To become an effective learning organization, these mental models must be challenged. We as individuals tend to promote theories, which are what we intend to follow, and theories-in-use, which are what we actually do. Similarly, organizations tend to have ‘memories’ which preserve certain behaviors, norms and values. So we need to insure we know which models work and which ones do not and why they work or why they do not? Also when do we need to design new ones? This holds true whether we are talking a street survival tactic or a report writing process. One of the best ways of doing this is simply having conversations that open insights into what problems actually exist or could present itself somewhere in the system. This problem identification helps us design and ultimately plan adaptable courses of action for the complex problems cops face.

    In creating a learning environment it is important to replace confrontational attitudes with an open culture that promotes inquiry and mutual trust. To achieve this, the learning organization needs mechanisms like candid robust communications up, down and across the organization for locating and assessing organizational courses of action. This is the main reason for roll calls and shift debriefs as well as memos, general orders, policy and procedures, emails, and face to face conversations about all aspects of the job. There is a balance to be sought between tradition and new ways to execute and often times combining the old with the new ideas works best so we must continually experiment to learn best practices and adapt them as they relate to the problems we encounter.

    The development of a shared vision is important in motivating the officers to learn, as it creates a common identity and cohesion that provides focus and energy for learning and robust execution. The most successful visions build on the individual visions of the employees at all levels of the organization; therefore, learning organizations tend to have flat, decentralized organizational structures that allow for street level decision making.

    The accumulation of individual learning constitutes Team learning. The benefit of team or shared learning is that officers grow more quickly and the problem solving capacity of the organization is improved through better access to knowledge and expertise. Learning organizations have structures that facilitate team learning with features such as boundary crossing, example; a patrolman doing investigations or administrative function.

    Team learning requires individuals to engage in candid dialogue, discussion and even debate; therefore members of the department must develop open communication, shared meaning, and shared understanding. How else are we going to be able to connect the dots in some crisis? Learning organizations typically have excellent knowledge management structures, allowing creation, acquisition, dissemination, and implementation of this knowledge in the organization. This means we share openly what we know not in an effort to micro-manage but in an effort to pass on knowledge learned from experience. There’s a big difference!

    The Learning organization concept was created through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues explained his book titled; The Fifth Discipline, which has evolved into many more publications on the topic. It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking. Organizations should become more like communities that employees can feel a commitment to. They will work harder for an organization they are committed to.

    My commitment to YOU is that whatever knowledge and experience I have to offer I will share with you. The focus of my efforts being that we continually improve and add value to the methods and tactics we use and, to build confidence in the strategic and tactical decision making processes that make us more comfortable in uncertain conditions so we can explore, observe and solve both conventional and unconventional problems and threats .

    Thanks for the focusing your efforts every day on continually improving yourselves and improving this profession and the communities you work in. We owe it to ourselves, our families, each other, and those we have sworn a duty to protect and serve.

    Stay Oriented!

    Fred