People-First Leadership5

Fighting Crime the Agile Way

Lessons from the Dutch Police

"Fighting Crime the Agile Way: Lessons from the Dutch Police" | Michiel van Gerven, Agile Coach

Michiel Van Gerven

March 31, 2020


The Dutch Police is at a crossroads. Like most organizations, the Dutch National Police is well equipped to fight yesterday's issues. Today’s challenges require a police force that is tech-savvy, able to deal with increasingly complex crimes, and is very quick to respond to new developments. Criminal organizations are no longer the classic highly structured organizations of old, they have become true network organizations. A recent report has described them as a loose association of specialists: pick the number you require from the proverbial criminal yellow pages, and you are on your way.

Contrast this with an organization that tends to lag behind in adopting new ways of working. That struggles to make decisions and is slow to respond to new challenges. Historically, the National Police is a hierarchical, siloed, and at times political organization. The people are what keeps the organization afloat: it is through their passion, perseverance and will-power that the organization keeps functioning. This passion and perseverance comes at a cost, however. A high percentage of people suffer from burn-outs or leave the organization prematurely, other people simply become disengaged.

Increasingly, however, teams and the organization as a whole are finding ways to tackle crime more effectively, and make their work more enjoyable in the process. Experiments with Agile Police Teams in the Rotterdam and Arnhem areas of the Netherlands are paving the way of more widespread adoption of Agile throughout the organization.

This short description makes it sound like this was a simple process, in reality, it was anything but. Getting to this point required boldness, creating social safety, great personal leadership, radical transparency, inter-agency cooperation (with the prosecutor's office), great team spirit, and quite simply lots of hard work. And the story is far from over, the real work is just beginning. While these teams have provided a catalyst, truly re-energizing the National Police requires making hard choices and dealing with structural impediments embedded in the organization.

This story will explore what other organizations can learn from the journey the Dutch National Police is going through, but will also highlight the key strategic choices ahead that are required to create not just agile police teams, but an Agile Police Organization.

I would like to stress 5 key learnings.

  1. Leadership is crucial. Ecosystems are changed by the top predators, meaning that while teams do the work, leadership creates an environment that makes this possible. Agile transformations that do not transform the way the organization is led are doomed to fail.
  2. Go where the energy is. Start the transformation with the willing, or those that are in most dire need. Prove the concept, then scale out and up.
  3. There are no blueprints. Agile transformations are organic, thus the transformation itself needs to be agile too. Deep and narrow should be preferred over broad and shallow. Get it right with a few teams, and only then scale up. Scaling up before structural problems have been tackled only scales up problems.
  4. Frameworks are a starting point, not a goal. The National Police has many similar teams that perform the same function in different areas or cities, yet none of them work in exactly the same way. All have tailored their way of working to their specific local circumstances. The same work, vastly different approaches. The same goes for large scaling frameworks, they offer interesting perspectives but the only scaled framework that has proven right for the national police is the framework that they have developed themselves, and even then are vast differences between teams and units.
  5. Strive to become a true network organization. Crucial to tomorrow’s challenges is the understanding that the organization can no longer go it alone. This is a long term change that will not only affect teams and ways of working, this will require fundamental changes in all areas of the organization (HR to name but one).

Ultimately, this is a story of hope. For law enforcement everywhere, but more importantly if Agile can work in the Dutch Police it principles are truly universally applicable.

About Michiel

Michiel van Gerven is an Agile Coach and Trainer at Organize Agile, based in the Netherlands. He has a penchant for Agile in unconventional environments and likes a puzzle. Currently he is the Lead Transformation Coach at an international insurance agency and coaches, trains and advises the Dutch National Police in adopting agile ways of working and thinking. And, most importantly, he facilitates them in embracing an agile culture and mindset.

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