Geoff Mead, Hertfordshire Constabulary

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Developing Ourselves as Police Leaders: How can we inquire collaboratively in a hierarchical organization?

Geoff Mead, Hertfordshire Constabulary

“Improving the quality of leadership is a crucial issue for the police service. Learning about theories of leadership is not enough. What really matters is for each of us to understand and improve our own unique practice as leaders.”
This was the challenge taken up by a mixed group of police managers (including the author) in the Hertfordshire Constabulary1 in an eighteen month long action inquiry – Developing Ourselves as Leaders. For most participants, the results have been positive, exciting and tangible (though hard to quantify). However, we also found that doing collaborative inquiry in the police context had particular problems – not least that of creating a safe learning environment in an overtly hierarchical organization in which neither the democratic and emergent processes of collaborative inquiry nor the kind of transformative learning claimed by some members of the Action Inquiry Group (AIG) sit comfortably. This paper will examine some of these difficulties and our attempts to overcome them.

Much has been written about the theory and practice of action research and collaborative inquiry including, recently, the excellent and compendious Handbook of Action Research (Reason and Bradbury 2000) and a very useful guide to Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization (Coghlan and Brannick 2001). However, there is, it seems, still a hunger for practical examples of such projects and I would like to offer our experience – “warts and all” – hopefully in a way that will prove useful to readers contemplating or actually doing collaborative inquiry in an organizational setting. I shall say something about the rationale behind choosing an action inquiry approach and then give a brief overview of the Developing Ourselves as Leaders inquiry before considering some of the politics and practicalities of the project in more detail. Finally, some tentative conclusions will be offered on the basis of this experience.

Why Action Inquiry?
As an educator and senior police manager, I have long been interested in the challenges inherent in police leadership and leadership development (see, for example (Mead 1988; Mead 1990; Mead 1995). By 1998, I had come to the view that all methods of leadership development are based on assumptions (usually implicit) about the nature of leadership. Warren Bennis, one of the most respected and enduring commentators on the subject, described it as the most studied and least understood phenomenon in social science (Bennis 1989). In fact, though common usage sometimes requires it, the word “leadership” has little meaning in the abstract. We might even say that it only acquires meaning in action – “leading” as opposed to “leadership.”
My assumptions about leadership reflect this basic epistemological position. I take it that leadership is an active process, not an abstract quality. Leadership is not the prerogative of the few but is distributed throughout the organization: exercised day-to-day by many at all levels. Nor is it a zero-sum game in which the more I lead, the more you follow. Rather, it is a complex and often paradoxical practice, uniquely exercised by each of us in particular circumstances, which we can develop and improve over time.

It therefore follows that effective methods of leadership development must be able to support a multiplicity of individual inquiries whilst holding a common focus (in this case, that of developing ourselves as leaders). They will benefit from diversity of membership – particularly in relation to ethnic origin, gender, level and area of responsibility, police and support staff. Because practice changes over time, it requires an iterative process not a one-off event. And because practice is multi-dimensional it is essential to work holistically across all four domains – experiential, imaginal, propositional and practical (Heron 1992; Heron 1996).

Thus, when I wanted to offer a leadership development programme to the Hertfordshire Constabulary as part of my PhD research, some form of collaborative action inquiry capable of encompassing all these dimensions and domains seemed to be called for. Drawing on writer-practitioners such as Donald Schon (Schon 1983), Mike Pedler (Pedler 1981), William Torbert (Torbert 1991; Torbert 2000), John Heron (Heron 1992; Heron 1996), Peter Reason (Reason and Rowan 1981; Reason 1988; Reason 1994; Reason and Bradbury 2000) and Jack Whitehead (Whitehead 1993), I adopted the nomenclature of Action Inquiry to describe what I envisaged: practitioners coming together as a community of inquiry, encouraging and challenging each other as they engaged in real-time, real-life development over several cycles of action and reflection with the process of the group designed co-operatively to meet emerging themes and interests. I hoped too that the term Action Inquiry would be sufficiently understandable and intriguing to attract potential co-inquirers.

Overview of the Inquiry

By early 1999, the Action Inquiry Group (AIG) was ready to begin its work under the banner Developing Ourselves as Leaders. Our starting point was the question: “How can I improve the way I exercise leadership in the Hertfordshire Constabulary?” In addressing this question, we each took responsibility for examining and improving our own practice and each of us formulated a more specific inquiry question to guide our investigation. We generated these following an intensive examination of our current work roles and life positions. Some were personally oriented, such as: “How can I weigh up what people say about me and still feel good at the end?” Others were more obviously focused on improving organizational performance, such as: “How can I help XXXX Department work more collaboratively?”

A dozen or so of us met on eight occasions over an eighteen-month period. We began and ended with a two-day residential block (Friday afternoon and Saturday) at the Police Staff College, Bramshill. Otherwise we met at neutral venues for afternoon meetings during mid-week. As the inquiry progressed, we shared stories of our leadership practice, reflected on our experience, gave feedback and challenged each other, and encouraged further experimentation back in the workplace. At our final meeting we devised creative techniques to document our learning – holding each other accountable to the group for our inquiries and looking for common threads. Table 1 gives some idea of the range of methods we used throughout the inquiry and of the outputs of the group:

Table 1 – Methods and outputs

At the end of the process, we discovered that the ways in which we had improved our practice were both highly particular and situated within the context of our individual inquiries. This aspect of our learning was qualitative and not readily transferable to others. However, we did identify an important pattern that was common to most of us. As a result of the Action Inquiry, many of us experienced a significant shift in self-perception (for example: Impacting others – “being more fully present”, Awareness – “valuing my own knowledge”, Passion – “doing what I love and believe in”, Creativity – “taking more risks”, Confidence – “I have the right to be here”).

These shifts in self-perception tended to bring about quite subtle behavioural changes (for example: seeking to influence rather than trying to prove others wrong, trusting subordinates to get things right rather than trying to do everything oneself, speaking out against manifest injustice rather than standing by for fear of disapproval). In some cases, these subtle behavioural changes resulted in positive tangible consequences (for example: members reported the achievement of significant organizational objectives, the creation of a more open and productive climate in the workplace, and turning round a demoralized workgroup into an effective and empowered team).

We also learned much about Action Inquiry as a method of leadership development that is more generalisable and transferable to other practitioners. We were able to create a safe, supportive environment in which affirmation, recognition and acceptance balanced honest and challenging feedback. Voluntary self-selection provided an excellent starting point for this – we all wanted to be there! As is apparent from the methods listed in Table 1, we paid particular attention to the experiential and imaginal domains – engaging our creativity and sharing our stories were both enormously powerful routes to learning. We found that our learning deepened over time as we engaged with successive cycles of action and reflection over an eighteen-month period. However, the pattern of learning was complex and discontinuous rather than linear and incremental – each of us had to come through a period of confusion and uncertainty as we let go of familiar ways of being and doing. Genuinely transformative learning did occur though it was not a comfortable process.
Nearly all members of the Action Inquiry Group described the process as worthwhile and personally rewarding. Here are some of their comments recorded at our penultimate meeting:
“Now I have really got some sense of direction as you can see in this picture…”
“I need a helping hand sometimes to get to where I want to go… that’s when I come to the group”
“We shared our inquiries and from that came the learning and the feedback”
“The thing about this has been the honesty… in these sessions we have said when we disagree and why we disagree with somebody”
“It is about light and focus and being able to find your way through the dark”

In case this is beginning to sound like yet another “victory narrative” of action research (MacLure 1996), I should point out that it did not work for everyone. Several members of the group “dropped out” – generally pleading lack of time though one said she was bringing “too much emotional baggage” to the group and that her continued presence might interfere with other people’s learning. Although I think she was mistaken in this regard and overly self-critical, one has to respect her decision to withdraw.

Politics and practicalities
As Coghlan and Brannick (Coghlan and Brannick 2001) observe:
While doing any research in an organization is very political, doing research in and on your own organization is particularly so… Indeed it might [even] be considered subversive (p64)
Although my experience of doing research was limited, I had got my fingers burned often enough as a senior police manager2 to be very aware of organizational sensitivities and of the need to avoid activating its “immune response” to the action inquiry project. In the event, political dynamics moved into the foreground on several occasions. Rather than cluster them together, I prefer to consider them in the particular contexts in which they arose (when I will also refer to several political models and theories that have helped me make sense of them).
In hindsight, I can identify six main phases of the action inquiry – outlined in Table 2. In this section, I will follow them in rough chronological order, highlighting the politics and practicalities of doing the Developing Ourselves as Leaders project.
Doing the groundwork

The process of seeking sponsorship and support for the project began in late 1997, about a year before the AIG was initiated, when Peter Sharpe (then Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Constabulary) agreed to support my application for a Bramshill Fellowship3. I wanted to obtain a fellowship for two reasons: because it represented a commitment to fund my studies and, even more important, because it would give my research some official recognition and legitimacy. We were both keen to ensure that I would provide some “return” for this investment in my development and my plan included a proposal to conduct some form of collaborative action research (at that time, in the area of men and masculinities) in the Hertfordshire Constabulary.



Main Activities



Doing the groundwork

- Personal sanction from Chief Constable

- Consultation with influential peers

- Get support from HR and Training

Sept 1997


Sept 1998


Getting the group together

- Letter of invitation to 300+ managers

- Briefings for 50+ potential participants

- Set-up meeting for committed members

Oct 1998


Feb 1999


Creating a safe environment

- Establishing my role as co-facilitator

- Contracting “ground rules” for group

- Sharing personal stories, hopes, fears

Feb 1999


April 1999


Sustaining the inquiry

- Developing individual inquiry questions

- Meetings every six to eight weeks

- Holding each other to account

April 1999


June 2000


Accounting for the learning

- Individual papers from members

- Extended review of learning

- Multiple, creative techniques

Oct 1999


Feb 2000


Bridging the gaps

- Feeding back results to organisation

- Presentations at police conferences

- Independent evaluation of project

May 2000



Table 2 – Phases of the Developing Ourselves as Leaders action inquiry

The Chief Constable’s endorsement of my Bramshill Fellowship sanctioned the project in principle and proved invaluable when I began to sound out other potential supporters during the summer of 1998. By this time I was outside the organisation, seconded to National Police Training, and I was anxious to “test the waters” back in Hertfordshire. Over the course of several weeks I had long conversations with several erstwhile colleagues who I felt would be open-minded and sympathetic, whose judgement I trusted and who I knew to be influential “opinion-formers” in the organisation. They were happy to lend their personal support to a collaborative inquiry process (indeed, two of them subsequently joined the group) but encouraged me to reconsider my intended focus on men and masculinities – which they saw as too narrow, confrontative and exclusive.

Taking their views into account, I reformulated the proposal to cover a more general inquiry into leadership practice among men and women across the organisation and subsequently put it to the Training Manager and Head of Human Resources on that basis. They were both quite excited by the idea and willing to support it, provided it was offered as a complementary development activity clearly outside the scope of the existing structures for management development. This degree of “distancing” from mainstream training activity was understandable and probably quite helpful in differentiating it in the minds of potential co-inquirers.

Even as a senior “insider”, getting high level support for the action inquiry project required persistent and delicate negotiations. Powerful players needed to be convinced of the potential benefits of this approach and reassured that, though challenging, it did not represent a fundamental threat to the organisation. In managing the micro-politics of these interactions, I found it helpful to present myself as a “tempered radical” (Meyerson and Scully 1995), as someone authentically committed to the mission and goals of the organisation who is also seeking to bring about radical change in some aspects of the way it does business. I was also able to call on my track record as director of other successful management and leadership development programmes4 to establish my credibility and competence in the field. Despite these credentials, doing the groundwork was a slow and painstaking business – but absolutely essential to securing the levels of access and support it would take to get the project “off the ground.”
Getting the group together
By October 1998 we were ready to launch the group. Working closely with Roger Barrett the Force Development Manager, a letter of invitation was drafted, refined and sent out to over three hundred middle and senior managers throughout the Hertfordshire Constabulary. We wanted to offer the chance of participating to as wide a range of people as possible without being overwhelmed by potential participants. So, after much debate, we set eligibility criteria based on rank or grade. Although setting an arbitrary cut-off, these grounds had some logic and were defensible in terms of existing organisational practice.

The underlying principle was that of voluntary, informed self-selection and the letter simply announced Developing Ourselves as Leaders as a new development initiative and invited anyone who was interested to attend one of two briefing sessions in November. It was printed on official headed paper, signed by Roger, and sent out using the internal despatch system to deliver a personalized version to each eligible member of the organisation. My involvement as facilitator was stated explicitly along with a very brief description of the project.

Between fifty and sixty people responded to the letter by coming to one of the briefing sessions, some of them familiar faces, some new to me – men and women, police officers and civilian support staff of many ranks and grades. To the non-police reader this may not seem particularly noteworthy but such heterogeneity is still comparatively rare in police management and leadership development programmes. The briefings were designed to help people make a positive decision to opt in to the action inquiry or to decide, without any stigma, that it was not for them. I spoke a little about the rationale for offering this opportunity to focus on leadership and said something about the participative and democratic ethos of action inquiry. I talked about the possibility of transformative learning and asked people to decide if they wanted to take part using their head (Do you have enough information? Does it make sense for you to do it?), heart (Are you intrigued, curious, drawn? Does it feel right for you to do it?), and will (Are you able and willing to meet the commitment? Do you really want to do it?).

I then told the story of Jumping Mouse – a wonderful Native American tale of journeying, sacrifice and transformation (Storm 1972). It is a long story – twenty minutes or so – and it telling it felt like a risky thing to do. The possibility of ridicule was high. Nevertheless, I had been talking in a fairly conventional way about a radically different way of learning and I wanted to be more congruent. It was a defining moment. As I looked at the audience I saw some eyes glaze over whilst others began to sparkle with interest – choices were being made. We closed the session with questions and a general discussion and everyone was given a short paper reiterating the main points of the briefing and a reply slip with which to notify their decision within three weeks.

Sixteen people confirmed their intention to take part and we arranged a preliminary meeting in mid February 1999 to resolve any outstanding issues and to set up the inquiry group. Not everyone could make the meeting (a consistent and seemingly inevitable feature of organisational life) but there were enough of us to share some hopes and expectations and to arrange a series of meetings over the coming year beginning with a two-day residential event in April to kick start the inquiry process.
By staging the process of self-selection (invitation, briefing, written reply, preliminary meeting), and with a bit of good luck, we had managed to recruit a manageable number of committed people. It also turned out that the final group was well mixed in terms of police officers (8) and civilian support staff (8), and in terms of men (10) and women (6). There was also a wide spread of police ranks and civilian support staff grades from many different specialties and locations. We could not have asked for a more promising start.
Creating a safe environment
This issue was always present to some degree, and was figural in the early stages of group formation and, again, towards the end when we considered how to feed back our learning to the organisation and beyond. It featured strongly at our inaugural residential event in April 1999. Twelve of us came together at the Police Staff College, Bramshill from Friday lunchtime to Saturday teatime (a fair blend, we thought, of work and personal time). As we moved through the weekend, three main issues about the safety of the learning environment arose.

  1. Within the group – how did group members want to behave towards each other and be treated?

  1. My role as facilitator – how would I offer leadership and to what extent would I participate as a co-inquirer?

  1. Outside the group – what were the appropriate boundaries with the organisation and how could they be maintained?

We addressed the first issue in several ways; sharing our hopes, fears and life stories in a series of creative exercises, gradually deepening trust and empathy by taking small risks, allaying some of our concerns by building relationships and getting to know each other. We also spent some time mid-way through the process generating ground-rules for the group, such as:

  • Confidentiality – we own our own stories

  • Feedback – challenge with respect

  • Listening – allow others to speak uninterrupted

  • Honesty – tell it like it is

  • Pro-activity – take responsibility for our own learning

  • Process – flexible, fun and realistic

The list is neither surprising nor startlingly original. What matters is that these agreements were generated organically by the group on the basis of shared experience. We knew what they meant for us and we never needed to refer to them again.

I found the second issue – my role in the group – a particularly knotty one at first. Clearly I had initiated and convened the group. I was the only person with prior knowledge and experience of collaborative inquiry and, as if this was not enough, I also held the most senior rank/grade. Concerned that these factors might distort the group dynamics and make it impossible to establish peer-relationships, I had played down my role at our preliminary meeting in February, stepping out of the limelight for fear of dominating the group. Unfortunately it left the stage bare so that our meeting was stilted and confusing. It was “good enough” not to put too many people off (though three of them did drop out afterwards) but we could so easily have fallen at this first hurdle. I debriefed the experience with Roger and consciously decided to play a more active role (though still rather tentatively) on the residential event in April.

Two things occurred that weekend that shaped my subsequent role in the group. On Saturday morning, two members of the group challenged me to stop “playing small” and encouraged me, in the words of Nelson Mandela5, to allow myself to be “brilliant, talented and fabulous”, to “let your own light shine”. They made it very clear that they did not need me to stand aside for them to be powerful too. It was a lesson I hope never to forget. Thank you Judy and Carol.
On Saturday afternoon, as we coached each other in formulating our individual inquiry questions, I offered: “How can I lead (in) this process of Action Inquiry with authenticity, integrity and joy?” By making my leadership within the group an object of inquiry, any taboos or awkwardness around it seemed to fall away and I continued to lead wholeheartedly (if sometimes inexpertly) for the remainder of the project. The fact that I had so publicly committed myself as a co-inquirer did much, I believe, to reduce the distortion of hierarchical power in the group. I was personally powerful but not because of my rank.
The third issue – that of the relationship of the group with the wider organisation – also manifested in several ways. Although all members of the group had identified themselves as exercising leadership in the organisation, and all were committed to working in its best interests, for some there were also strong feelings of alienation – a concern that “I can’t be me” in the workplace and an equally strong desire to “be me” in the AIG. There was a feeling of unease and a fear of making oneself vulnerable by stepping outside cultural norms.

Some members of the group were actually in hierarchical working relationships (there were three boss-subordinate dyads/triads in the group). Could they deal openly and honestly with each other in the group – and what effect would that have on their outside relationships? For the most part, the “confidentiality contract” and sensitive mutual exploration of these edges defused potential problems – though one member did withdraw from the group because he felt that his presence was inhibiting a more junior colleague. As the group became more established there were few, if any, signs of reticence or reservations about these outside working relationships.

The issues of authenticity and alienation, however, continued to be a puzzle. Why should we (for I shared these feelings) be so concerned about the tensions and contradictions between our personal and professional personas? Why were we so driven to explore them? What underlay our intuitive sense that finding some resolution of these dilemmas was crucial to improving our effectiveness as leaders? At the time, I drew on Roger Harrison’s notions of organisational alignment and attunement to explain the phenomenon. Alignment refers to the focusing of individual effort and will on organisational objectives, attunement to promoting healthy relationships and quality of life within the organisation. He argues (Harrison 1983) that a healthy, effective organisation will find a balance between these two dimensions. Perhaps, in a highly aligned organisation, the AIG was providing much-needed opportunities for attunement. The supportive behaviour that was so apparent among group members would suggest that this was so.
Recently though, I have found Stephen Kemmis’s explication of Habermas’s theory of communicative action (Kemmis 2000) extremely helpful in making sense of the personal-organisational dynamics at play in the AIG. He describes the “de-coupling” of the system and lifeworld under the economic and political conditions of modern society. Certainly the drive towards rational-purposive action is very strong in the police service and its logic of functional rationality is increasingly at odds with a less instrumental and more holistic sense of personal identity. As Kemmis says:

Under the conditions of advanced differentiation characteristic of late modernity, whole realms of social life are coordinated in terms of purposive-rational action and functional reason, with the requirement for mutual understanding and consensus being more or less suspended. Under the imperatives of systems functioning, people simply ‘get on with the job’, as it were, without requiring a justification for what they are doing in terms of authentic personal assent (p96)

[Such alienation can create] conditions of fear [which] do not readily favour creative approaches to organizational, personal, social and cultural development – the kind of playfulness that supports transformational work (p98)
From this perspective, the AIG can be construed as the formation of a “communicative space”:
…in which people come together to explore problems and issues, always holding open the question of whether they will commit themselves to the authentic and binding work of mutual understanding and consensus (p100)
It is this, says Habermas, which makes communicative action and the healing of the system-lifeworld split possible.
Sustaining the inquiry
Of course, every collaborative inquiry will follow its own unique path but a number of practical issues arose in sustaining ours, which may be of interest. The first, to which I have already alluded, was the difficulty of getting everyone to meetings. We held five interim meetings, six to eight weeks apart with an extended review of our learning at a second residential event in January 2000. We never had a “full house” and no one (not even me) managed to get to all the sessions so we could not afford to be too rigid about what constituted membership of the group. A few dropped out never to return, one person “joined” halfway through and some stayed on the fringe. Nevertheless, there was an identifiable core of ten who remained deeply involved throughout. Work pressures often impinged on meeting times despite pre-arranging the dates of meetings for the whole year – and without such advance planning it is doubtful whether any of the meetings would have been sufficiently well-attended to be worthwhile.

At the residential event in April, each member of the AIG formulated his or her own individual inquiry question under the umbrella: “How can I improve the way I exercise leadership in the Hertfordshire Constabulary?” The focus on our own practice informed each subsequent cycle of action and reflection. As individual inquiries gathered momentum, I found that it took a considerable amount of energy and attention to hold the whole process together. Although we shared the tasks of arranging venues and of “rounding people up” for meetings, a good deal of the work came my way – from negotiating a budget to cover our costs for the year, to writing innumerable letters keeping members in touch with developments and making sure that those who could not get to particular meetings were kept in the picture.

We found that the simple act of sharing our stories, telling each other how we had been getting on with our inquiries, was enormously powerful – both to deepen the relationships between us and as a way of holding ourselves and each other to account. We quickly got into the habit of tape-recording our sessions and sending copies of relevant sections of the tapes to individuals to aid further reflection. Most sessions began with an extended “check in” of this sort and then followed whatever themes emerged. On one occasion, following a “spin-off” meeting arranged by several women members of the group, this lead to a fascinating exploration of gender and leadership. We learned to trust the process of action inquiry and that, in an organisational setting at least, it needs to be sustained by careful cultivation and lots of energy.
Accounting for the learning
Although much of the time we concentrated on supporting each other in our individual inquiries, we were also curious to see what common themes were emerging. This desire seemed to arise quite naturally after about six months and we agreed that each of us would write about what we were learning about our own leadership practice as a result of our inquiries and circulate it within the group. In the event, nine papers were produced, which we took to our meeting in October 1999. We discussed each paper in turn, checking for clarification, offering feedback to the author and noting our own reaction. A few days later, Roger and I met to listen to the tape recording from which we distilled what seemed to be key statements and themes, which in turn were circulated to the group for comment and consideration. Our “mid-term paper” proved to be an extremely useful exercise both in terms of getting a feel for where the group had got to and of providing a mirror to individual members.

Figure 1 – Convergence and divergence in the action inquiry process
Our paths then diverged once more until we came together for an extended review of our learning at the second residential event in January 2000. (See Figure 1 for an illustration of the patterns of convergence and divergence during the inquiry) Again, we met from Friday lunchtime until Saturday teatime at Bramshill – eight of us – collaboratively designing the process on the basis of some questions and principles we had decided previously. We used three different activities to provide accounts of our learning. First, we all brought objects symbolising what we had learned about ourselves as leaders. Each of us, in turn, displayed the object on a central table and spoke about what it meant. The “presentations” were recorded on videotape and the objects gathered together for the weekend to represent and hold the energy of the group.
Second, we each made a brief statement in response to the question: “How has your practice as a leader changed and improved through the AIG process?” and were then interviewed by a colleague in a “goldfish bowl” setting so that other members of the group could also listen and respond. The interviews were sympathetic but challenging – friends acting as enemies (and as friends). These were tape-recorded and subsequently transcribed.
Third, we spent some time making visual representations – pictures and collages – responding to the question: “What has the story of the AIG looked like for me?” These were then displayed round the room and we took it in turns to speak about our images, using the video camera once more to record the event. The material from all three activities was later copied, transcribed and fed back as a record of the learning and as a stimulus to further action.

We closed the meeting by reviewing what we wanted to share about our learning with others, who we wanted to share it with, and how we could make it safe to do so. As in the early stages of the inquiry, strong concerns were expressed about how “the organisation” would react to what we had been doing. By this time, however, we had come to believe that it was possible to bridge the gaps – provided we were politically “savvy” going about it, for example:

  • Challenge but do not confront or criticise

  • Choose the right audiences (15% is enough)

  • Continue to respect individual confidences

  • Seek the new Chief Constable’s seal of approval

  • Use the learning to add value to existing programmes

  • Maintain contact with each other for mutual support

  • Be content to sow seeds – don’t try to do it all at once

Finally each of us made public commitments to take specific actions to begin the process of communicating our learning to others in our own organisation, and beyond to other researchers and practitioners.

Bridging the gaps
From the organisation’s point of view, the most immediate benefits of the inquiry are to be found in the improved leadership practices of its members (some of which are described above in the overview section) though, of course, there are so many variables in human behaviour that, whilst one can ascribe these benefits to the AIG, one cannot “prove” the connection. In police-speak, we may have reasonable grounds to suspect, but we cannot prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt. Fortunately, there is considerable room for manoeuvre between these two standards – perhaps we could be satisfied with “on the balance of probabilities”?

Although I have expressed it rather flippantly, what we discovered, as soon as we began to try to communicate what we had been doing, were some significant epistemological gaps, major differences in our understandings of what constitutes useful and valid knowledge. Guy Claxton (Claxton 1997) speaks about a propensity to believe that people have only learned something if they can codify and reproduce it (which may go some way towards explaining the current fashion for leadership competency frameworks and the like). But that would be to oversimplify the matter – what we met, as we sought to communicate our learning, was not hostility but a mixture of interest, pragmatism and scepticism.

I personally briefed Paul Acres, our new Chief Constable, in May 2000. He expressed considerable enthusiasm about promoting “leadership” in the Constabulary and urged me to speak with the Head of Human Resources to make practical arrangements for bringing the benefits of the research back into the organisation. I did so in June and we agreed, in principle, that I would advise and “shadow” an in-house facilitator if another action inquiry group was formed. To date this has not happened. Writing this article, I can see that I need to be more proactive in this area and intend to involve myself more closely in current leadership development initiatives in Hertfordshire.
Seeking a wider audience, with three other members of the AIG, I offered a workshop on Developing Ourselves as Leaders at the high-profile 2000 ACPO Research Conference6. We expected about fifteen participants but found that there was a huge interest in the workshop – over forty delegates came to our session – where we presented most of the material in the overview section of this article and made ourselves available for small group discussions. We had some lively debates. Delegates were not unsympathetic but most were somewhat sceptical. Typical of their comments were: “I can see that you are all very enthusiastic and believe that you have learned a lot, but can you prove it?” “How have you evaluated the impact of the course [sic] on organisational effectiveness?” “Yes, I believe you but I’d never be able to sell it back in force without some sort of evaluation.”

Far from being disheartening, these arguments pointed the way to how we might begin to bridge some of the gaps. On the advice of one delegate, I approached the Home Office Research Unit with the suggestion that they might fund an independent evaluation of the impact of the AIG. I am happy to say that, after some delay, they agreed that this would be a useful strand of their overall research programme and, at the time of writing (January 2001) the evaluation is actually taking place. One stipulation of the invitation to tender was that the research should be conducted in a way that is congruent with our own collaborative methodology and contributes to our further learning. As a result, the researcher will be presenting the provisional findings to the AIG for discussion and feedback as part of the analysis. The independent evaluation is a high-risk strategy but if its findings tend to confirm our claims of improved leadership practice, we may be at least halfway across the bridge.

An even more ambitious attempt to influence public policy was sending a short case study on the AIG to the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit as a contribution to their research and still-awaited report on Public Service Leadership. Within a couple of weeks I found myself sitting round a Whitehall table with members of the “Prime Minister’s Leadership Project” team. There was some interest in our work and a shortened version of the case study (which I never saw) was included in early drafts of the report (which I also never saw). Sadly, it was dropped from later drafts “on grounds of space” though I fantasize that it was seen as too challenging to the functional rationality of government ministers and senior civil servants. I say “fantasize” because I have no idea what actually happened – my experience was of coming up against the truth of power, against which the power of my truth was but a straw in the wind.


Did we manage to inquire collaboratively? I think the answer is a qualified “Yes”. There is ample evidence in the transcripts of our meetings and in the accounts of our learning to substantiate the claim that, at the individual level, we created and took opportunities for transformational learning: learning that was grounded in our day-to-day practice as we variously engaged with the demands of delivering a high quality service in the complex environment of contemporary policing.

However, it would be fair to say that – as yet – our collective learning has had less impact. We are still struggling to communicate the benefits of a collaborative approach to leadership development to a wider audience, hampered by a police training orthodoxy that places a high value on uniformity (role definitions and competency frameworks), compulsion (if it works, everyone should do it), and assessment (preferably pass or fail). Perhaps the independent evaluation of our work will lend weight to our own voices.

We have learned that, as sense making and knowledge creation move in to the public domain, they can become highly politicized and the potential difficulties of conducting collaborative inquiry in a hierarchical organisation such as the police service should not be under-estimated. Nevertheless, our experience in Developing Ourselves as Leaders suggests that there can still be clear benefits for the organisation as a whole (as well as for individual participants):

  • Learning from the inquiry is fully integrated into the workplace

  • Useful networks and relationships are created across the organisation

  • The process encourages life-long learning and self-development

  • Improved practices have a positive impact on the wider organisation

  • Costs are low and abstractions from the workplace are minimal

Like other forms of collaborative inquiry, Action Inquiry is not a standard technique that can be applied (like a coat of paint) to meet every need. It is a sophisticated and powerful approach to human inquiry, with enormous potential to help us improve both individual practice and organisational performance. There are no guarantees of success but, with a little courage and a lot of determination, a little imagination and a lot of energy, much is possible.


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Geoff Mead is a Chief Superintendent in the Hertfordshire Constabulary, currently seconded to National Police Training, Bramshill as Head of Business Development. He was Director of the Accelerated Promotion Course, 1988-91 and a Visiting Fellow at the Office for Public Management 1994-97. He is currently writing his PhD thesis on “living inquiry” into personal and professional practice.

Geoff Mead, National Police Training, Bramshill House, Hook, Hants, RG27 0JW

Phone: 01256-692517 Email:

1 A provincial police force in the United Kingdom (an organization of some 3,000 police officers and civilian support staff).

2 See Police Stories (

3 A national scheme to support police officers researching topics of relevance and concern to the police service as part of higher level degrees at recognised universities

4 Having directed the Special Course (a national scheme for young officers with outstanding potential) from 1988-91, and the MDP Management Development Programme ( for middle managers in Hertfordshire) from 1995-1997

5 From a poem by Marion Williamson quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech as President of South Africa

6 ACPO – Association of Chief Police Officers

DRAFT(v.1) Jan 2001: Comments welcome but please do not quote without permission

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