Harmony: Resisting Standardization & Embracing Diversity

My first half-dozen years as a police trainer were spent standardizing techniques and protocols. The second half-dozen has been spent trying to break up those standards that I had established! It took a few years, but I've learned to not only tolerate diversity, adaptability, and creativity...I've come to appreciate and embrace it.

Standards, in and of themselves, are not evil. They bring us comfort. They give us predictability. They provide us a norm. They show us what is expected. They demonstrate repeatability and efficiency. Sounds pretty good, right?  

This is ideal for a factory assembly line, or a fast food restaurant, or a computer program, or a big box retailer...where the strategy is exacting replication, lightning-fast response, low pricing, and mass production. But in policing, as in many of your industries, standardization can easily be taken a too far. 

That brings us to the dark side of standards.

Standards are rigid and inflexible. They have low tolerances for deviation. They stifle creativity. They demand blind compliance. They disregard changes in or uniqueness of context. They require predictable input and conditions. And they ignore the emotion of interpersonal relationships.

At the other end of the spectrum from standardization and rules, we have creativity

from The Virtus Group, Inc. 

Creativity allows for expressing emotion and developing relationships. It accounts for changes in the environment. It operates freely in an uncertain future. It's about designing and synthesizing in-the-moment.

But creativity is unpredictable. The output follows no established path - opting to blaze an unexplored trail. As employees or team members, "artists" are difficult to supervise or keep on-task.

So how do we harmonize these two opposite ends of the spectrum? 

My answer lays in the above infographic. We must find the different contexts and "functions" within our organizations - and determine the predictability in each of them.

For those in or with a highly predictable future, we should standardize processes and develop rules. Who works best in this environment? Our doers, rather than our thinkers. This requires that our teams understand more of the HOW and less of the WHY. (As one who constantly promotes critical thinking and the power of Why, I'm aware how contradictory this sounds! But then again, think replaceability or interchangeability of workers in these functions.) We develop our doers through skills or task training, and we manage them.

For those in unpredictable, unknown, and unknowable futures, we should open up for creativity. Who works best in this context? Our thinkers! We need folks who have a deep and intimate understanding of WHY...and who can build the HOW while mid-flight. Our creative people mature through thoughtful education, such as scenarios, problem-solving tests, and tabletop simulations or discussions. And these people are leaders...who also need to be led. Not managed.

In the middle, we have our adaptive people. Those who do and think. Those who philosophize and perform. They know the WHY and the HOW. They understand leadership, management, and the importance of strategy. They know the big picture and the smallest of details. 

As a police trainer, I needed to harmonize these ideas into a comprehensive work development (training & education!) program. I needed to grow more depth to my own instructor abilities - where I learned more about how adults think, process information, learn, and grow. I had to match up certain functions or tasks with the appropriate teaching or learning methods. 

In many cases, I had to loosen up the standards and rules. Ditching the checklists meant I had to rely upon foundational concepts, values, and principles as guides. Think of them as "off-leash standards." Instead of "this is the way" choreography, I outlined loosely standardized boundaries -- where our people had the freedom to explore creative solutions as long as they lay within parameters.

This was risky. I was taking police officers who had become accustomed (maybe even institutionalized?) to having a rigid "if-then" mental programming...and demanding they now think for themselves! They were used to being given the answers, and merely replicate or recite them. More was being expected of them. 

But these same police officers had also become frustrated over the years at NOT having the real skills to handle the uniqueness and unpredictability of public safety problems. They were like playful dogs who were chained up...seeing the real solution just outside their reach. For the first time, my instructors and I were taking the leashes off our police officers and allowing them to roam in a fenced-in yard, to create solutions and answers that were as unique as the problems they faced.

And this new freedom scared me a bit too. It was just easier for me as an instructor to tell them WHAT to do or HOW to do it. Explaining WHY was much more difficult and time consuming (at first!). It was an up-front investment that we were not sure would pay off. 

But it did pay off. Big time. Trust wins. We have police officers return to tell us how much more confident (and safe) they feel in solving problems with adaptive and creative solutions. Officers' supervisors come to us, to explain how much more thoughtful, mature, diverse, and compassionate their officers are since this change. It was as if we were putting the hearts and brains back into robots. We were returning factory workers back into the intelligent craftsmen we initially recruited!

But this style of teaching and learning is far from mainstream in US policing. It's far from being a focus in many other industries or organizations too. We are too rooted in thinking we need another policy or another rehearsal or another check-the-box form. This couldn't be farther from the truth; we need less of these things and more focus on teaching our people HOW TO THINK!

Those police officers and agencies who have adopted these ideas and this style of development are a shining example of what happens when you harmonize the right systems, contemporary training/education, and trust in your people! (I'm happy to have even a small part in the movement towards this mindset.)

In these complex environments and organizations, we must harmonize each of our specialties, our functions, and our silos. Harmony is a blend of standardization and artistic creativity. It's about combining differences. Sharing a vision, values, and sense of purpose. Valuing generalists to oversee specialists. Bringing divergent solutions together. Embracing uniqueness and strengths. Stressing strategy with all ranks.

Processes. People. Rules. Creativity. Management. Leadership. How. Why.  When we integrate these ideas into a comprehensive program, we enjoy harmony.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance, productivity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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