Part of a Series
This Reflection is a part of the
2017 Public Safety Summit Report.
To see the complete report, click here.
What is the linkage between organizational capacity and culture? Why does it matter? And what, if anything, can leaders in public safety do about it?
To answer these questions, first take a look at the changing landscape of policing. The volume and velocity of change is staggering. Society is expecting new forms of outcomes, and communities are demanding more from front-line police. In fact, 75 percent of the attendees at the Public Safety Summit said they are anticipating significant or extreme change in their operating environment within the next five years.
Keeping up with this level of change will require public safety organizations to increase organizational capacity – the structures, systems, processes, and people that enable an organization to meet goals effectively and efficiently. Indeed, most chiefs, sheriffs, and commissioners are already focused like a laser on this issue. Of the attendees at the Summit, 54 percent said that growing capacity is “critical” – meaning it’s the most important challenge they face.
Yet here’s the important linkage between organizational capacity and culture. In almost every setting, organizational culture can overpower and suppress capacity-growing innovations. As the noted organizational theorist Peter Drucker said; “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In public safety organizations, this tension between organizational culture and strategic innovation is even more pronounced, as leaders have long-standing cultures – often generations in the making – that can accept or reject operating model changes and innovations, along with the new ways of working that come with them. All too often, cultural issues thwart the power and potential of innovation.
So what, if anything, can be done about this challenge of culture and capacity?
Gaining a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what underpins the challenge will help. Organizational culture, as Edgar Schein of MIT defines it, is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Two ideas are notable here. One is that groups of people are always creating and acquiring new ways of working in order to adapt to the world (the external adaptation and internal integration element). A second is that successfully adapting to the world requires a group to teach each other and show each other new ways of working. The group has to collectively change the culture over time. There is no “instant fix” to harmonize culture and capacity – it demands concerted and continuous engagement.
You can start this concerted and continuous engagement by reflecting on three questions:
- How should our mission evolve? Given societal shifts in crime patterns and community needs, what do stakeholders need and value? How well prepared is my organization to deliver and to what degree will we need to change?
- What new capacity do we need? Given a shift in mission, what new capabilities will we need? Can we build these new capabilities internally, or do we need to acquire them from outside the organization?
- How should our culture adapt? Given the new structures, systems, and processes we have to build and/or acquire, how will our culture react? What cultural attributes should be kept and harnessed for change? What cultural attributes should be shed or changed?
- Where can I exercise leadership? Given the need to create the right environment for cultural change, where can I foster the psychological safety that leads to not only trust, but also motivation to experiment and engage in new ways of working?
Of course reflection is nothing without action. And this isn’t an easy task. Seventy-seven percent of the leaders at the Summit said it was “critical” to harmonize organizational capacity and culture, yet only ten percent said they are “well prepared” for this challenge.
Even with the difficulty, there are strong examples to look to and emulate. As the cases and insights from this report show, progressive chiefs and sheriffs are finding ways to innovate, build new operating models, and harmonize capacity and culture.
My sincere hope is that the Public Safety Summit will spur the dialogue and ideas that help public safety leaders adapt organizational cultures and build the capacity that leads to better justice, value, trust, and legitimacy over time.
Let’s get to work,
Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie
Executive Director, Leadership for a Networked World
Fellow, Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
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