Devising Solutions to Complex Police Problems: How Can We Get Better?

Over the years of facilitating scenario based learning with police, I have continually evolved programs of instruction in a way that I feel based on input from, the students in class and other sources that focus their efforts on the development of people I know are using the techniques and reaching the outcomes they seek, when handling crisis situations. Recently, I have been reading a lot on Operational Design to include Planner’s Handbook for Operational Design  and A Systemic Concept for Operational Design, both very interesting works and influenced this post (be sure to read these). It occurred to me how little we in policing collaborate, even within the police organization. What opportunities to learn and develop have we missed not using simple dialog between professionals in an effort to better understand the types of problems we face, plan and develop strategies and crisis responses, to novel or unconventional crisis? What types of social problems can we be more effective at resolving or at a minimum reducing through better communications amongst the stakeholders? The questions are many and the solutions are many times more because the problems range in complexity from tame, technical, deterministic and structured problems, to wicked, adaptive, probabilistic and ill-structured. It takes getting into the roots of problems to better understand them and then develop course of action. One way of becoming more effective at this is using operational design.

Operational design is nothing new. The military has been using it for a long time. Policing has dabbled in it. City or town wide table top exercises that include all stakeholders sitting down conversing, asking critical questions about the potential problems and then developing courses of action collectively, have always a had a positive impact in preparing and readying communities. My experience has been efforts in communities working together have always got much better results in preparing and reading for crisis situations. The problem has always been and continues to be today and that is WE DON”T DO IT ENOUGH.

Perhaps we don’t understand or see the value in operational design that allows communities to generate ideas that continue into planning to be operationalized, but even after planning begins, the design process continues and continues to inform planning. Why? The problems are changing for example active shooters continue but they also have evolved into, active stabbings or actively running people over with vehicles. To deal with these and many other problems we must first seek to understand the problems by digging into he roots and causes of them, before we can effectively prevent a crisis and when prevention fails to respond to a crises. We have a great responsibility and with that responsibility we must make greater efforts in preparing and readying leaders and first responders to deal with crises.

Design and planning are both necessary for dealing with complex crisis situations, but while planning activities are well represented in practice, design is largely absent. When design occurs today, it usually occurs implicitly within the mind of an individual, and not as an explicit group activity leveraging the intelligence of the group. Can we do better? I believe we can.

It’s important to recognize the distinctions between design and planning.  Design and planning obviously are related in that both deal with formulating ways to bring about preferable futures.

“…design is the process of working out the initial form of something. The word connotes preliminary, intellectual, abstract and even artistic activity. In contrast, planning is the process of devising, generally through the application of established procedures, a series of actions to be taken. Planning connotes a more detailed and standardized process and a more finalized product. By way of a metaphor, design is the thematic sketches of an architect based on conversations with the client and an appreciation of the surrounding environment within which a building will exist. Planning is the blueprints of the engineer, based on the architect’s design, from which the building will actually be constructed.

Design can be thought of as problem setting—locating, identifying and formulating the problem, its underlying causes, structure and operative dynamics—in such a way that an approach to solving the problem emerges. In the words of Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, “solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.”10 In contrast, planning can be thought of as problem solving once the problem has been set (by design or default). Where design starts with a “blank sheet of paper,” planning occurs within an established conceptual framework, whether created through design or the result of unquestioned defaults or assumptions. Where planning focuses on generating a plan—a series of executable actions—design focuses on learning about the nature of an unfamiliar problem. Planning thus focuses on the physical, devising actions intended to have a direct effect in the physical world. In comparison, design is more conceptual, even abstract, hypothesizing about underlying causes and dynamics that 7 explain events in the physical world. In this sense, design guides planning, but also requires planning to translate it into terms applicable to the physical world.” ~John Schmitt

Police leaders today face highly complex, dynamic and novel problem situations which they are called on to resolve, but for which the known and practiced solutions of doctrine (policy, procedure, SOPs, checklists), will not suffice. These situations cover a wide range and variety, extending well beyond conventional crisis.

"They are fundamentally social problems, comprising numerous individuals interacting in countless ways according to various motivations. Involving the interplay of human will, intellect, and creativity, these situations are essentially unknowable: no amount of information collection or analysis will reveal objective truth or provide the ability to predict events with certitude. Despite the most careful observation, these situations maintain the ability to surprise. They change unpredictably over time." ~John F. Schmitt

Operational design combines aspects of policing philosophy, systems theory, writings on the nature of problems and problem solving, and the challenge of critical and creative thinking in order to help the police leaders and street officers understand and develop effective solutions for complex police problems. In this environment, past experience can provides only limited insight into a new situation. Police leaders and first responders cannot apply the time-tested methods learned from experience with the confidence they will work as they have in the past. Under these conditions, before they can begin to apply established techniques effectively, leadership must first be able to form an understanding of a situation on its own terms and conceive an approach for dealing with that situation uniquely. That is, they must first design.

“In addition to occurring at different times in the problem-solving process, design and planning can also be thought of as different approaches. The “design approach” implies the exercise of creative judgment resulting from implicit knowledge or understanding by commanders or other executives. The “planning approach” implies the application of established procedures, a staff-centered, stepwise approach in which each step produces an output that is the necessary input for the next step. Design does not proceed in a stepwise fashion, but unfolds conversationally.” ~John Schmitt

Police operation planning requires a balance of art and science. Operational art is a doctrinal term defined by the Army as:

“The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs— supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment—to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations and organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.” 

My definition of operational art is taking what you KNOW and being able to apply it on the street. This application occurs through the thought process police leaders use to visualize how to best efficiently and effectively use police skills to accomplish their mission.

What’s the Potential Value-added in using operational design?

  • Increased emphasis on the role of the commander.
  • Enhanced dialogue between commanders and staffs across levels.
  • Deeper (and earlier) understanding of the operational environment.
  • Better understanding of the problem and its root causes.
  • Better guidance to drive detailed planning.
  • Shared visualization of the flow of the operation.
  • Enhanced adaptability to changes in the environment or problem.
  • Expanded role of the assessment process.

The role of the commander is often less talk and more listening to the responding officers who actual know what’s going on. The incident command working together in a command post with all other agency commanders can then gather resources and logistically coordinate their response verses telling the frontline what to do. The enhanced dialog in operational design settings between command staffs across levels ensures all agencies responsible for their roles in a crisis response know what it is they are supposed to do and understand they must adapt when the situation changes. Why? The operational design discussions create a better understanding of the types of problems we might face and the root causes of these unstructured problems. It has been my experience that all too often designing responses in policing has been a one man band effort, especially in small town organizations. This one man band approach (and I have done too many them) leaves you all too often with a one dimensional approach to solving unconventional and adaptive problems. Operational design done collaboratively gives better guidance to drive detailed and adaptive planning because it gives a shared vision of the flow of operations. This guidance enhances our ability to adapt to changing conditions as the need arises and allows those frontline personnel closest to the problem to look outward at the problems and use their minds, training and experience to solve it.

“To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. … We destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment. …We cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. —John R. Boyd, “Destruction and Creation”

Boyd nailed it! How do we develop these mental patterns to help us shape and reshape the environment when direct experience in crisis is so very rare? With direct experience being rare we must take advantage of indirect experience (Education and Training, Development) to develop the mental patterns necessary and then recognizes their opposites or novelties. We can only do this by digging deeper into the roots of problems and we do this with operational design.

I have started implementing operations design in my programs of instruction combining tactical decision games, critical question maps, pre-mortems, and operational design and have seen great results in more effectively communicating, collaborating and designing courses of action. My focus in this post is to provoke discussion, within both the police departments and their community, on the nature and role of operational design and planning and the methods used to conceive unconventional crisis. We need to talk and work together more and more often so we understand the spectrum of problems from structured and technical to ill-structured and adaptive. In the face of complexity, uncertainty and novelty, leaders must devise ways to resolve a wide variety of highly complex and unique problem situations spanning the entire spectrum of crises. Many of these situations exceed any one person’s ability to comprehend, much less solve. Current planning methods are inadequate for this task. One way to gaining a better understanding of problems and how they evolve is operational design, which ultimately will lead to more effective courses of action.


Stay Oriented!