How Silos & Specialism Make Our People Vulnerable, Slow & Fragile


Specialists excel in special problems and opportunities. When you can predict the future, then you are best served by preparing and assigning a person who specializes in that environment and function. 

Pretend you manage a hospital emergency department. In your crystal ball, you see the next patient to be rolled into the unit experiencing a massive heart attack. You'd be smart to request a cardiac physician to the floor to await the patient's arrival. And if next Tuesday at noon, you knew a woman having a stroke would come in, be sure a neurologist is staffed. 

But that's not how emergency room staffing works. Patients come in with complex mixes of injuries, illnesses, and predispositions. As such, emergency physicians with broad, inclusive backgrounds hold mindsets of stabilization and generalism during these crises. It's not only a smart financial model for the hospitals; it's the best way to medically care for the patients!

There are no crystal balls or time machines to predict the future. What lays ahead is unknown and unknowable change...and accelerating. Specialists succeed and excel when their specialized skills or knowledge match up with what actually occurs. But what about when the future does not pair up with their field of expertise? What do they rely upon? 

I hear a lot about buzzwords adaptability and resiliency lately. (I, admittedly, use them myself quite frequently.) But these terms often find themselves isolated as a positive mindset or creative attitude towards handling failure. They are rarely discussed with any true depth beyond related words grit and perseverance...

What if, instead, we actually designed systems that prepared our people and organizations to be more protected, faster, and robust to begin with? 

Ten years ago, my police training unit looked at what made our police officers vulnerable, slow, and fragile in the streets while handling tactical problems - incidents like foot chases, high risk car stops, officer-down rescues, ambushes, area searches with K9, active shooters, and barricaded gunmen. In real life, police incidents rarely fit neatly into one of the above categories. Instead, they seamlessly and quickly morphed from one to the next into as one seriously complex situation. 

In the past, the training we had provided to our officers was done via "silo" approach. We foolishly had been providing them with specific tactics to respond to specific situations in specific contexts. As long as the real life situation matched the training, our officers succeeded. 

But what about when it didn't match? What about when it morphed in a split second? How quickly and effectively did they respond to that change? Simply...not as well as we'd like.

As such, we radically flipped the way our trainers taught tactics to cops. We stopped separating our lesson plans into specific types of response tactics. We no longer used "car stop tactics" or "active killer tactics" or "K9 search tactics" -- stopping in both theory and language. 

We instead began teaching generalized police tactics and foundational concepts and principles. We closed the door to most mechanical or specialized techniques. These new adjustable responses relied upon a belief that there was no perfect tool for the job...and if there were, the perfect tool would be too slow to arrive or be transitioned to.

To this, adaptability became less about handling failures...and more about the organic shifts of our teams and their decisions as the situation became more or less predictable. It was more about preventing failure by understanding context and flexibility. Our officers saw adaptability and resiliency as exploiting time and "stacking the deck" rather than simply playing weak cards dealt into their hands.

We have recorded great results on the street with this radical shift in education and development. Our people, teams, and supervisors report back to us that they are responding more quickly and more accurately to stressful problems. They feel less burdened by deploying rigid tactics or techniques, and more free to explore and synthesize fresh solutions on-the-fly. They no longer spend valuable time fumbling around, looking for the specialist tool. Now, they immediately apply more general, adjustable tools.

In this sense, resilience is not solely about having a mindset to choose alternative options when faced with failure. It's about changing the systems and training program beforehand to reduce the chances of failure. A vital part of those systems and training is the adoption of generalism and concept-based education, and discarding specialized silo-type tactics. 

Resiliency or adaption is not just something that happens after a breakdown or mistake. It should be that which is done before the problems or opportunities ever arise. I recommend exploring how generalism, integration, speed of transition, prediction, and stabilization can be adopted in your organization.

***

Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training coordinator for a department in suburban Chicago. His passion is studying human adaptability, decision-making, and critical thinking. Give him a follow on Twitter at @LouHayesJr

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