Policing today presents many challenges for law enforcement executives. Departments face a perpetual whirlwind of responsibilities and problems to solve. Many responses to these matters are incident-driven and reactive in nature. These resemble the arcade game “whack-a-mole,” where once one problem is resolved, several others will continue to pop up.
Daily operations, calls for service and other activities are all necessary for serving the public and accomplishing a department’s mission. However, all these can hinder progress on critical projects. Leaders seldom differentiate between their “pressing issues of the day” and long-term strategic goals because both are important. They are clearly different and they each compete for our time, resources, effort and attention. When urgency and importance clash, the overflow of daily problems will usually win out in the long run.
Police leaders recognize that there is often too much on their plates. So what is the solution? How can one balance many responsibilities, daily challenges and duties and still be effective and accountable? How do departments traditionally accomplish goals? Whether it’s called a strategy, operational plan, or simply a special project or program, any initiative that is intended for leaders to significantly move their organization will fall into one of two categories.
The first requires a special order, policy change or administrative instruction signed by the chief and disseminated to the officers. These are often initiated and executed by a directive from the chief and their command staff. The second category requires a behavioral change. This requires more than just an order. Execution requires getting people to do something different. It requires a change in habits, thinking, responsibilities and commitment.
Police administrators typically rely on the same methods to solve the magnitude of problems their agencies face. Results are usually only demonstrated by performance metrics of quantitative or output measures. These include number of citations issued, arrests made, drugs or weapons seized, or warrants served. Rarely do these reflect the qualitative or outcome measures that present a more realistic assessment on the success of the department’s efforts.
A good example of this occurred in the 1980s. Cities saw a significant growth in crime primarily attributed to the increase in drug abuse, especially the rise of crack cocaine. The police did their best to be aggressive in dealing with the “war on drugs,” but the only measure of productivity was the number of arrests or drug seizures. In reality, the police were having little effect on the problems of crime, violence and drugs. Police chiefs struggled with finding a better way to deliver crucial services to their communities. Over 40 years later, the same dilemma still exists. There is often a lack of innovation, and departments often adhere to a “this is the way we have always done things” philosophy.
Gun violence has increased in the nation. Some initial efforts to address these problems have been made, but with little lasting success. Many times, agencies merely put a Band-Aid on a problem requiring a tourniquet. Sometimes the problem goes away only to resurface later or somewhere else. Police leaders will have to think outside the box to find an innovative approach to address these serious concerns facing our communities. Many command staffs struggle to develop a consistent and sustainable solution.
Many competing priorities perceived as urgent take precedence over a response to issues such as gun violence. There is often minimal employee engagement toward a common goal and a lack of ownership by a department’s police leadership cadre. Police chiefs struggle to create a unified focus for their people. They don’t have a problem so much with developing strategies but clearly have difficulties when it comes to execution and accountability.
It is crucial that agencies become more proactive and get officers more engaged in their work. Officers need to clearly understand and experience how their ideas, efforts and results contribute to the execution of our overall strategies. This would make their work more meaningful and would encourage teamwork and a sense of accomplishment. The basic premise is to get all our personnel to work together toward a collective purpose.
Studies on organizational changes report that most initiatives require significant change on the part of the frontline employees. It is important that leaders prepare their subordinates on the purpose and expectations of any new program. The beat cop needs to be involved because they are the true experts on identifying and addressing these problems. A mutual solution can be relatively straightforward and is easily repeatable if everyone is included in developing plans to achieve the department’s priority goal. There is a proven process for executing an agency’s most important strategic priorities in the midst of a whirlwind. It really all comes down to four basic principles.
1. Focus on the priority goals. One concept many leaders are not familiar with is the law of diminishing returns. This is traditionally a problem in police agencies because of the nature of their work. Basically, this implies that you can only achieve excellence if you limit the amount of goals you are working on at any given time. You may develop up to two to three goals and still achieve excellent results. Remember, every agency still has to deal with their own daily demands. The reality is that all goals and duties are important but only one or two are critical or high priority. Best efforts can only be given to one to two priority goals at any given time.
Execution requires involvement, and all levels must help develop and define specific plans with their teams. This will leverage knowledge and a greater sense of ownership and engagement. It will drive the results. An example of a critical goal can be: Reduce gun violence citywide by 15% from January 1 to December 31, 2020.
All critical goals must have a finish line in the form of “from X to Y by when.” X can be the total number of incidents of gun violence from 2019, and Y can be the projected measure of success for 2020, which reflects the 15% reduction from 2019 totals. The “when” is the project time frame (i.e., January 1 to December 31, 2020). An ongoing tracking graph can be provided to show updated running totals of shooting incidents during 2020.
2. Develop and implement action plans to accomplish the priority goal. Long-term plans are often too rigid and lack the ability to adapt to the constantly changing needs and environment of policing. Leaders and supervisors need to define the best daily or weekly activities that will lead to meeting the primary goal. Police departments may call these special operations, tactical plans, warrant roundups, hot-spot policing, targeted enforcement or other names.
3. Create a scoreboard to track progress. Engagement drives results and results drive engagement. Teams can see the direct impact their actions have on results. Employees are most satisfied and motivated when their jobs give them the opportunity to experience autonomy and achievement. The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few leaders understand how to leverage progress to boost motivation. “Scoreboards” can be a powerful way to engage employees. These drive results but also use the power of progress to instill the mindset of winning. A winning team helps morale and provides satisfaction from achieving a goal that really matters.
4. Build in accountability and measures of transparency. Execution is the ability to set a goal and achieve it. The key of this principle is accountability. Principles 1, 2 and 3 bring focus, clarity and engagement. Principle 4 helps to ensure that the goal is achieved, regardless of the whirlwind. Accountability means making personal commitments to the entire team and the department as a whole to move the scores forward and then following through in a disciplined way. Accountability is the key to successful execution of the overall goal. The focus is to motivate every participant to hold each other accountable for the actions that will achieve the priority goal.
There are three primary components to this process:
- Account: Report on your commitments.
- Review the scoreboard: Learn from successes and failures.
- Plan: Clear the path and make new commitments. Determine if current actions are working and redirect efforts as needed. Don’t just go through the motions.
The team and its members have important roles in this process. They will see exactly how their ideas and commitments are driving factors toward achieving the department’s priority goal. Since they have a clear scoreboard that is updated weekly and that reflects their performance, they understand that their work is actually measurable and recognized. Thoughtful and responsible police leaders endeavor to use all available resources in the most effective ways. Thinking outside of the box and being open to new ideas and innovative management practices can lead to greater results than those achieved through traditional practices in law enforcement.
Programs like this can lead to unprecedented results and help better serve our communities. These simple principles provide guidance on goal setting, accountability and achievement, and can resonate with all levels within a police organization. Today’s leaders need to constantly seek excellence and find ways for every frontline member of their department to commit to and then execute on their highest priority goals. The days of the status quo and leadership complacency should no longer be the norm in our profession.