When George Gascon became police chief of San Francisco last year, he brought with him an idea that, if successful, could change how his department operates. He wants to use civilians instead of officers to investigate most nonviolent crimes like break-ins, car thefts and vandalism. These civilian employees would photograph crime scenes, dust for fingerprints, write reports, testify in court and counsel victims on how to prevent future crimes. “This is really about re-engineering policing,” Gascon told the San Francisco Chronicle last summer. “It’s a program that I believe will increasingly become the model around the country.”
Perhaps, but in the meantime, it’ll certainly change how the police work in his city, how crime victims interact with his department—and possibly save millions in salaries and training.
And it raises an important question for all community leaders: Where do transformational ideas like this come from? Where do you find ideas and practices that could yield important community benefits but, by definition, aren’t in common use? And that question, in turn, begs two other questions:
- When do you introduce transformational ideas? That is, how do you know when the time is right for transformation?
- How do you introduce a transformational idea so it has a good chance of overcoming opposition and being accepted?
All important questions. Today I’ll take on the one about where transformation ideas come from. In future postings, I’ll look at the others. (See our series on mapping community change.) Caution, though: No leader should introduce a transformational idea until she can answer all three questions. (Where did this idea come from? When should we introduce it? How do we introduce it so it succeeds?). Leaders don’t just throw big, half-baked ideas on the table and expect others to react; that’s what gadflies do.
In Gascon’s case, he found his transformational idea in Great Britain, where civilian investigators are fairly common. After reworking it to fit American police practices, he tried it in his previous job as police chief of suburban Mesa, Arizona. (The verdict from top law enforcement officials and regular cops there: It works.) Now he’s trying it on a much larger stage in San Francisco.
In short, he found his idea the way most good leaders find ideas: He kept his eyes open, asked the right question (in Gascon’s case, how can we deliver police services better and cheaper?), and looked in places you might not expect (another country). This is part of a skill set you might not associate with community leaders but should: the leader as learner.
Two other examples of how leaders learn:
- Bill Clinton and Renaissance Weekend. After Clinton was elected president in 1992, reporters were surprised to discover that he participated in an annual retreat called Renaissance Weekend. It sounded strange and even a little ominous at the time, but it was how Clinton formed relationships with people from many backgrounds and, more importantly, learned about ideas he couldn’t have found at the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas.
- Rudy Giuliani and the Manhattan Institute. When Giuliani ran for mayor of New York in 1989 and lost, he didn’t have many good ideas outside of public safety for changing city government. (He was a longtime prosecutor.) But before he ran and won in 1993, Giuliani went to school by attending seminars at a conservative New York think tank called the Manhattan Institute. What he learned there formed many of his administration’s quality of life initiatives and government improvement efforts, ideas that were pioneered far from New York and brought to him by the Manhattan Institute.
Point is, as a leader you have to develop your own sources of ideas. You can find many good ones in your own community, but they will be mostly incremental ideas—improvements to things your city is already doing. If you want to find transformational ideas, ones that can take the city or its government in completely new directions, you’ll almost certainly have to look elsewhere.
There are several ways of doing this. You can read widely (books, magazines, blogs and national newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal). You can attend state or national conferences. (If you do so, attend the breakout sessions, talk with speakers—and get their business cards!) Or you can go on your own. I’m notorious for wandering away from family vacations to inspect downtowns, check in on neighborhood revitalization efforts and walk through new municipal projects. (And yes, I always talk to people and get their cards.)
Finally, there are intercity visits. These days nearly every city gathers a group of leaders and takes them on an overnight visit to study how another place does things. If you’re on the list, it can be a great way of learning about transformational ideas.
Go with some questions in mind, though, and make them big ones, like how can cities get more citizens involved in civic work, how can they create more distinctive downtowns, how can they deliver services better and cheaper—and then look for answers in the host city. When you hear about a bold new initiative, ask where the idea came from, how it was introduced, why it was eventually adopted and how it changed things.
And don’t forget: Ask for business cards!