Unleashing the Power of Criticism

images-1I found the following article in the January-February 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review and immediately thought how this way of thinking could reform – revolutionize – 21st century policing.

Given the criticism that exists today (which is far greater than I have witnessed in my half-century of being and watching police) criticism could help break police out of “bunkering” and into visible improvement and growth in public trust.

I dream that every police leader would read and incorporate this idea into his or her leadership.

The following excerpts come from the original article by Roberto Verganti:


“In order to find and exploit the opportunities made possible by big changes in technology or society, we need to explicitly question existing assumptions about what is good or valuable and what is not—and then, through reflection, come up with a new lens to examine innovation ideas. Such questioning and reflection characterize the art of criticism…

“’Criticism’ comes from the Greek word krino, which means “able to judge, value, interpret.” Criticism need not be negative (my emphasis); in this context it involves surfacing different perspectives, highlighting their contrasts, and synthesizing them into a bold new vision. This is a significant departure from the ideation processes of the past decade, which treat criticism as undesirable—something that stifles creativity. Whereas ideation suggests deferring judgment, the art of criticism innovates through judgment…

“[The leader] did not ask his people to start with the insights of customers or other outsiders; he asked them to start with their own. We all sense changes in our environment, and we all have hunches, both conscious and subconscious, about how the world might become better. We often keep these personal hypotheses private. [He] understood this, so he asked the members of the group to make their hypotheses explicit. Once made explicit and then challenged, those intuitions would become precious raw material for creating new visions. And the process would combat the natural tendency of individuals to let their subconscious intuitions affect how they perceive the insights of others. [This leader] realized that participating in the exercise himself would enable him to more clearly see and objectively consider visions that would ultimately have been proposed to him.

Second, [he] asked everyone to reflect alone rather than as a team. This allowed people to dig deep into their own insights and not dilute or withhold them, as they might in a group brainstorming session. It gave each person freedom to perform the task as he or she saw fit—relying on a particular analytical framework, on data, or simply on intuition. This increased the likelihood that the 19 would propose diverse directions.

“Third, he gave people one month for reflection. They were expected to keep performing their regular jobs, but the time was sufficient for each individual to sketch out thoughts, let them percolate for a few days, and then refine them and add new ones. This is especially important for coming up with provocative or outlandish hypotheses—those that are often so blurred in the early stages that they can be quickly dismissed…

“In the second step each person subjects his or her vision to the criticism of a trusted peer. The peer acts like a sparring partner, providing a protected environment in which the person can dare to share a wild or half-baked hypothesis without being dismissed…

“How can you find a sparring partner who shares your general vision? You needn’t have had a previous relationship… Nor must companies rely on serendipity… The odds can be improved with a sort of speed-dating process whereby people with similar visions can find each other and agree to work together to polish their ideas. After step one, in which individuals reflect independently on possible directions, invite them to a meeting and ask them to briefly illustrate their ideas, which can be posted on a wall. Then have each person choose another’s idea that he or she would like to explore. If more than one person chooses the same direction, ask them to indicate a second and, if necessary, a third choice. Voilà, you have your pairs.

“In step three these promising hypotheses are subjected to deeper criticism through discussion in a group of 10 to 20 people who have envisioned other new directions. I call this group a radical circle. Its purpose is not to decide which hypotheses are right or wrong; it is to judge why and how they are different, what important underlying insights might have been overlooked, and whether a value proposition even more formidable than all the hypotheses might be found…

“A radical circle may converge on one or a few possible directions, which should then be subjected to the criticism of outsiders—step four. Remember that, unlike open innovation approaches, involving outsiders is not intended to generate new ideas. Rather, it is meant to raise good questions—to challenge the innovative direction you propose in order to help you strengthen it. In addition to targeted users, outsiders should include experts from far-flung fields with novel perspectives. I call them interpreters, because of their ability to find meaning in trends that might not occur to the product’s users…

“If [this process] is properly applied in discovering new problems and redefining value, criticism is an engine of innovation. By finding a new direction, a company can make sense of the myriad ideas for offerings and business models and recognize the handful that will really make a difference.”

Read the full article HERE.


images-2I suggest this may be a way for individual police agencies to break out from their common tendencies to hunker-down and not accept any form of. criticism. It is at first a safe step because it begins INSIDE the organization using the latent talent and wisdom of an organization’s employees.

Criticisms like these need to be confronted and addressed. This process is a way forward.

  1. Can’t you do something other than shoot to kill unarmed persons or persons with knives?
  2. Doesn’t every person deserve to be respectfully treated even if they are not themselves respectful to police?
  3. Do police always have to appear in riot gear whenever there is a protest that is public?
  4. Why can’t you discipline and improve officers that have a track record of citizen complaints? We can’t all be wrong!
  5. Isn’t there some way we can get to know the officers that work in our neighborhood? They seem so distant.
  6. It’s difficult for us to understand why around one-half of all your arrests involve people of color? Does that seem fair to you?

p.s. Note to police chiefs who see criticism as dangerous and impacting “officer safety:” It is best, as the author above argues, to engage criticism internally and first seek solutions there (my argument that changes comes first from the ‘inside-out’ ). It is a less painful process than having to fend off criticism and defend the actions of your department in the public forum. This is how intellectuals respond to criticism — and why improvement in a police department is often bogged down.