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.


  1. Some other criticism that needs asks of police officers:

    Why are so many police officers so anti-union and anti-government when they are working for the government and many of them are working in police departments that are unionized?

    Why do the police unions do not want to help out other government unions and private sector unions at the bargaining table when we all are in the same boat together in trying to have a better life?

    Why do the police intelligence section spend more time spying on individuals and organizations that not a genuine threat to the USA instead of using their time, resources, and the post 911 laws to go after the criminals? The FBI admitted they did that under the Bush, Jr., administration until Bush, Jr., left office.

    Why can’t the police tell the politicians that they will not spy on the American people and that they will arrest the politicians if they tried to order them to do so?

    Why can’t the police take white collar, corporate crime seriously just like they do with public protests and blue collar crime?

    Why can’t a citizen reprimand an officer when the officer is doing something that is totally out of line without fear of being arrest let alone beaten or shot?

    Why can’t police officers turn in bad cops without fear of retaliation?

    Why do police officers fight so hard to prevent an innocent person from being released from jail because the cops did not do their job properly in catching the guilty party in the first place?

    Why can’t the police officers who had knowing sent an innocent person(s) to prison be kicked off the force and then being send to prison?

    Why can’t the police officers support honest judges and district attorneys instead of supporting those people who will back up the cops at every turn?

    “Isn’t there some way we can get to know the officers that work in our neighborhood? They seem so distant.”

    Unfortunately, you can’t make police officers live in certain neighborhoods like gang infested ones or poor ones. In addition, you don’t have enough cops to do foot patrols in big cities like Chicago, New York, and California cities like Fresno and Sacramento because they have grown to enormous size.


  2. Other criticisms of the police are:

    Why do the police feel that the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights are hindering their police work?

    Why do the police get so upset and angry when a person denies them permission to search their cars, homes, and the person themselves?

    Why do police deny the person the right to keep silent and the right to asks for a lawyer when the person asks for one?

    Why do the police get angry when someone exercises their 5th Amendment?

    Why do the police keep thinking that courts are still liberals?

    Why do the police feel that they are entitled to a lawyer and the right to maintain silence while the rest of us can’t have those things?

    Why do police unions keep backing up corrupt cops?


  3. Great insight, David. I’d like to see more of us read HBR! I read through the testimony of the President’s Task Force on 21C Policing…Seems to me police leadership suffers from the Troubling Trifecta- traditional thinking, focus on technology to solve our problems, and tradition. How do we break out of our status quo and develop skills of critical thinking beyond the Thin Blue Line? We need innovative and collaborative leaders grounded in compassion to lead forward and transform policing today. Your work serves to inform us all. Thank you.


    1. Thanks, Richard, I particularly liked the “trifecta” — somehow police leadership needs to break out of this kind of old-world thinking. Now more than ever the community is looking for police to propose ways out of the current dilemma. I’m hoping and will keep blogging!


    2. Hi Richard, I couldn’t concur with you more around developing critical thinking skills and innovative and collaborative leaders. Maybe education is a meritocracy and promotions are based on individual prowess and achievement.

      Couper asks some pretty powerful questions here which could open up some strong discussion.


  4. Another criticism of the police is how come despite the fact that many of them have college degrees in criminal justice, they don’t seem to have any idea of using that college education to make their departments better, reforming the court system and trying to establish ties with the community they serve. A mind is a terrible thing to waste especially after spending all those years trying to get a college degree and exposing your mind to new ideas and perspectives.


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