Thriving on Change
By Alan Perry
I think that many public safety administrators, and their organizations, struggle with attitudes and traditional beliefs supporting the notion that they are somehow insulated from change by the slow moving wheels of government. The recent history of public safety organization survival challenges can be easily related to the organization’s ability to manage change. Redirecting this traditionalist mindset that believes rapidly changing best practices, regulations, and political pressure do not affect them, is truly challenging. There are several constructive pathways out of this situation, if the leadership, and each of its members, are truly committed to improving the organization. There is no silver bullet, every organization is different and must work within certain parameters defined by local government, a budget, human resource limitations or a myriad of other possible roadblocks. The obstacles to improving your organization’s agility, effectiveness, and value, can be stubborn and will persistently test your resolve.
Our duty, as public resources who exist because of public need and financial support, is to provide the highest quality and most cost-effective service we can with the resources we are provided. We do not have the power or authority to go beyond that; or do we?* we can analyze the attitude of our organization toward change and look in the mirror ourselves asking the questions that need to be asked. Change is a two edged sword, it is rarely a clearly defined or single item that is involved. If not carefully made, changes get bad reputations, leading to skepticism and push-back when implemented. If not made in a timely manner, other less desirable organic solutions may take root or we may miss the opportunity altogether, appearing inept and unable to catch up. We cannot prevent change from occurring, it is desirable to recognize and implement timely, appropriate and responsible change in an efficient and predictable way.
The attitude of the organization will mirror the collective attitudes of the members of the organization, with those placed in leadership roles exerting greater influence in most cases, than the front line professionals. We have, after all, given those we promote the ideological nod, reaffirming their personal characteristics and management style. These ranking members are frequently the source of information, and direction for the organization even though they may not be functioning on the front line and may not have done so for a considerable length of time. An organization can easily fall into the trap of hiring and promoting those who do not challenge the status quo and fit a narrow ideological and personality profile. The survival and vitality of the organization will depend on creating diversity in this process, providing a more balanced resource for managing change and avoiding group-think. We should look for those who respectfully challenge the status quo and explore new and better ways of delivering service in the promotional process, and abandon the search for dinosaur eggs.
Those entering public safety are frequently termed “type A” personalities which loosely describes people who are self-motivated, enjoy challenges and are assertive; all desirable qualities in public safety. Those we hire tend to fall into even more narrow categories depending on the evaluation criteria. The lack of diversity in public safety is widely known. Any selection process can allow personal and organizational bias to affect an objective outcome. Much like a promotional process, the individuals selected to review the applications, do background checks, and conduct interviews are selected by the administration because of some characteristic that is valued. These individuals in turn will seek out individuals that have characteristics they prefer, likely similar to their own, perpetuating the organizational culture. Does your process intentionally exclude those who challenge authority?, are too analytical, or confrontational? The body is made up of many different tissues, each one essential to our existence, an effective and responsive organization must have variety in its membership, each working cooperatively to help it meet its mission and survive.
The dissemination of information throughout an organizations structure is essential to effective management, including managing change. Clear communication of new ideas, better ways of doing things, discovery of new challenges, and solicitation for feedback, must occur unimpeded by artificial barriers and tradition. Every organ system in the human body works together to assure the survival of the body, every member of your organization should be given the opportunity to do the same for your organization. An open communication system that permits sharing of ideas and providing bi-directional feedback laterally and vertically within the organization will remove obstacles and improve the speed of communication of ideas and needs. When you burn your finger two things happen; a message goes to your brain informing you that it’s hot, and a message goes directly to the muscle resulting it the reflex removing your finger at nearly the same time your brain feels it. Wouldn’t it be great if your organization could perform that efficiently? How do you think a homogeneous workforce reacts to detecting and managing change?
Not all change is good, or necessary, and change occurs for many reasons. Legitimate change improves performance, efficiency and effectiveness, positively affecting the value of the services provided by the organization. Other changes occur due to regulatory or legislative mandates, budget priorities, politics, special interest, personal preferences, changes in administration, because everyone else is, and because it is the path of least resistance. In these cases there is frequently an unsubstantiated need for the change with no tangible benefit. Meaningful change will have a defined goal, represent an evolution rather than change alone, and have a purpose with measurable results. In public safety change should have the added objective of improving the value to the public.
*Or do we?
(Insert can of worms here) We affect the attitudes and perception of the public on a daily basis. We engage in public safety education and are routinely in the public eye. Our organizations are held in the public trust and administered by Federal, State & Local Government bodies that control the environment we must operate in, including our administrations and budgets. Many of us are prohibited from inducing the public to intervene in governmental affairs affecting the organization we are affiliated with, others are not-but the activity is still frowned upon. If public policy or legislation is affecting your ability to make a meaningful change, then confronting that limitation, and compelling its justification, or requesting that it be modified, should not be construed as a hostile act. Any public safety worker, or administrator working for the public good could, and should, seek to educate the public of the particulars and seek their support, if not their active participation, in removing the obstacles.
Get out of the office
As soon as a public safety worker comes off the front line, their perception of the organization (and reality) changes, yet they are now tasked with guiding the path for the organization. The only way to overcome this is to get up and get out on the street with some frequency and understand how your staff are interacting with, and serving the public today. It is a very dynamic environment we work in today, things change almost daily, a sabbatical from the street of 3 months may as well be 3 years. It will be impossible to relate with the needs of the public and your personnel from a desk, an open communication policy will help, but it is no substitute for the raw nuances of the personal interactions and the spontaneity of the feedback you can appreciate in those encounters. You can more genuinely understand you organization and its needs through close personal interaction and more effectively recognize the state of your organization.
Thriving is preferable
Change is required for survival in public safety management. If you put this article down thinking you are safe with surviving and managing change, you have missed my message. Change is inevitable, learn to master it, embrace and love it. Loose the negative attributed to change, it’s not a negative, the changes you make and instill in your organization will be grounded in need and produce value for the public and your people. You and your whole organization can come out of the bunkers and silos, skip through the fields of success, and bask in the sunshine of positive public perception. You and your organization will become agents of change, showing others the way to high performance in public safety.