Bypassing Traditional Hierarchy: A Bold, Bottom-Up Movement in the Dutch Police Force
Recently, we met with Jeroen Hammer and Roel Wolfert, two trailblazers within the Dutch National Police. They shared how their frustration with top-down management and suffocating bureaucracy sparked a radical bottom-up transformation network, enhancing engagement and innovation within the Dutch police force. Although this transformation is an ongoing process, there are already valuable insights worth sharing. Especially, for other changemakers out there.
Before diving into the story of the transformation network Jeroen and Roel established, let's briefly examine their backgrounds and how they joined the police force. You'll see that the backgrounds of these two rebels are vital to this powerful transformation tale.
The unconventional paths of Jeroen & Roel
In 2003, a major crisis rocked Dutch law enforcement. Triggered by the "Schiedammer park murder" - a case involving two children in a park, one murdered by a sex offender, and the other severely traumatized - the investigation was a mess, ultimately convicting the wrong person.
This scandal led to a commission's formation, which recommended recruiting highly educated individuals from non-law enforcement backgrounds to join the police. The 'Master of Criminal Investigation' study was developed, and Jeroen and Roel seized this opportunity to join the police force, each with different backgrounds (Jeroen in IT and marketing, Roel in journalism).
Working as an assistant prosecutor and detectives, they both experienced the highly traditional culture of this massive organization.
Jeroen: "I have gained a lot of experience in law enforcement, working on various cases where I have seen a lot of things. However, my frustration has always been that the police force is a 100% reactive organization. This mentality is deeply ingrained in everyone, including those in leadership positions."
"It was difficult to finish one case before the next one came along. We all recognized that something needed to change, but there was simply no time or space to do so. I tried to carve out a little bit of space for myself here and there, but it was never enough."
Then, in 2015, the Police was hit by another crisis. A book published by an insider led to an explosive disclosure of the inner workings and the dysfunctional organizational culture.
Jeroen: "We were like: shit, another crisis. Not much changed since the last one. Weren't we supposed to be the ones who were recruited to bring about change?"
This realization led Jeroen to write a letter with two of his colleagues to higher-ups in the organization, asking for more time and space to properly experiment and innovate.
He skipped several hierarchical layers in the process: "I didn't really understand the entire hierarchy after all the reorganizations, so I just focused on reaching out to those with enough power to give us some space".
This turned out to be a turning point for Jeroen and his colleagues. As of 1 January 2016, they were granted the time and space to experiment and innovate. Their internal change movement was born.
They called it: Q.
The birth of a change movement
In 2016, Jeroen, Roel, and a few other colleagues got to work. Like any influential movement, success is determined by the many motivated individuals who choose to participate. Within the Dutch Police force, various changemakers have stepped forward and taken the initiative to expand the impact of Q in their local teams.
Their purpose? To create a future-proof police force that keeps learning through a constant flow of innovations.
Besides this purpose, a few principles guide their ongoing transformation efforts:
- Learning by doing over planning
- Added value over bureaucracy
- Radical transparency over (internal) politics
- Autonomy over hierarchy
While a purpose and guiding principles are crucial for movements to succeed, merely writing them down doesn't create change. Jeroen and Roel understood this.
The innovation approach
Q aimed to boost innovation capacity within the Dutch Police by unleashing a bottom-up change movement. Their method, heavily influenced by The Corporate Startup and by 'lean startup' and 'design thinking' principles emphasizes rapid experimentation, iterative development, and customer feedback to produce successful products and services.
Let's examine their main process in more detail, including examples of effective innovations within the Police force.
1. Idea generation
First, the focus is on tapping into the creativity of the entire police force, enabling them to address their challenges directly. Individuals are encouraged within the organization to generate ideas for improvement, fostering a bottom-up flow of ideas.
Roel stated, "We don't want to find solutions to problems that we believe to be important. Instead, the detectives, police officers, investigators, and forensics should be the ones bringing in their problems, challenges, and ideas to work on."
To establish strong support throughout the organization (including higher management), Q matches various ideas emerging within the organization with the strategic goals of the Police force.
2. Prototype creation
Next, they train and guide people to create workable prototypes for their specific challenges. Instead of investing significant time and money in developing a fully-featured product, they focus on developing a prototype (or a 'minimum viable product'). This basic version can be quickly built and tested with potential users to gather feedback and validate the idea.
Roel explained, "As an organization, we need to get rid of our old way of innovating. The old way is far too bureaucratic, slow, and frustrating to achieve any valuable outcome. Instead of overthinking and overanalyzing, we set out to push people into action. The idea is to create a prototype and put it to the test."
Once the prototype is ready, it's time to test it with potential users to gather feedback. This feedback is utilized to iterate and improve the product until it meets users' needs.
4. Scaling up
Roel observed, "In the 'old police force,' everybody was left to innovate for themselves. There were 600 initiatives, and only a handful were successfully scaled up. On average, it took 9.5 years (!) to go from idea to implementation. A lot of precious time and money was wasted in the process."
"Now, we give people the opportunity to innovate, and also teach them how to use techniques to experiment and learn quickly. If successful, we can leverage our Q network to be able to quickly spread successful products and services to other parts of the organization."
What has the 'Q movement' achieved so far?
Jeroen stated, "We have implemented interventions to help spread innovative thinking like a virus throughout the organization. We have found that it works best when we involve the people from the frontline and let them lead the experiment. We have seen great success in doing so."
"The potential for innovation was always there in our organization, but some people felt they were not allowed to innovate due to the hierarchical structure. However, we have now seen people coming to us for training and taking skills back to their teams, often resulting in very successful innovations."
Examples of successful prototypes include:
- Cold case calendar: a creative way to solve cold cases with support from prisoners (click here for the 2020 version of the calendar to get an idea)
- Forensic screening with AI: leveraging AI to support decisions about which cold cases are most promising to reopen
- New ways of working: new ways of working based on Agile and Scrum methodologies are used to boost the success of teams working on topics such as 'Sexting' and 'common crime'
- HINT: HINT stands for "heterdaadkracht internetfraude" or "on-the-spot internet fraud force." Since the COVID-19 pandemic, internet fraud has increased by 400%, and perpetrators are rarely caught in the act. Q-LAB conducted research and developed a new framework for conducting traffic controls to increase the chances of catching such criminals. By training colleagues and having them look for signs of internet fraud (bank readers in cars, bank cards with different names, etc.), they have been able to solve more cases in the act.
- WeQan: WeQan is a user-friendly tool within the police environment for teams needing overview, collaboration, and focus in their work. The tool was created during the COVID pandemic when colleagues working from home could no longer easily collaborate using physical tools (i.e. kanban boards). Therefore, a tool was developed to enable digital collaboration within the police network. The tool has 25,000 users.
The movement began in 2016 in one of the regional units in the east of the country. In 2017, another Q team launched in Rotterdam, driven purely by intrinsic motivation as the local unit saw the potential in growing the Police's innovation power. Some people were able to dedicate 10% of their time to it, while others dedicated slightly more.
Roel said, "This helped us to create momentum and build credibility within the organization."
Growth continued, and by 2019 the number of innovation teams in regional units had grown to 9 (out of 11 regional units).
Structuring a movement
In 2019, a new police (who liked the movement's work) took over. This opportunity was used to discuss further scaling of the Q movement.
It became clear that more time, space, and structure were needed to scale. A more structured network was required to facilitate the growing number of local experiments as more people joined Q.
In our 6-week Masterclass, attendees learn how to redesign their organizational structure to allow for more freedom, trust, and entrepreneurship. Check out upcoming cohorts here.
Roel and Jeroen attended our Masterclass on 'designing progressive organizational structures' and used the insights from pioneering firms to improve their internal movement's structure.
Let's explore the main elements of how they're set up.
BaseQamp serves as the central hub of the movement. It facilitates the network by setting the movement's strategy, creating infrastructure, safeguarding space, and facilitating knowledge sharing.
BaseQamp currently comprises 8 people: 2 coordinators (Jeroen & Roel), 2 marketing and communication specialists, 1 project leader, 1 recruiter, 1 advisor, and 1 innovation coach.
Their responsibilities include supporting, training, guiding, and facilitating so-called Q-LABS.
Q-LABs are innovation teams within the Dutch Police's regional units, each connected to the Q network. In these Q-LABs, employees receive training, and a small core team facilitates experiments. The labs aim to develop and test solutions for operational challenges and issues that regional unit employees bring forth.
Regional units can decide whether they want to establish a local Q-LAB. To do so, they must invest their own resources in setting up the lab and contributing to BaseQamp. Investments can be made through time or money commitments. In return, they become shareholders in the network organization and gain decision rights to influence its direction.
Joining the Q movement brings clear benefits for regional units. They not only experience innovation within their unit but also gain access to training, personal development, upskilling of their people, and access to outside talent brought in through Q.
Each Q-LAB features an innovation coordinator and one or more innovation coaches, designers, and trainees.
BaseQamp facilitates several working groups to further advance innovation implementation and knowledge sharing across the country. There are currently three working groups:
- Innovation teams
- Innovation coaches
- Innovation trainees
These groups consist of individuals with the same roles who come together to share expertise, successes, and failures, boosting knowledge sharing within the network.
An informal, yet powerful, way to share knowledge which lots of progressive firms leverage.
Clear working rhythm
To provide structure to a fast growing movement, it's important to establish the minimum required structure in place. A clear operating rhythm is a vital component here. Jeroen en Roel took the lessons from our Masterclass and turned it into their own.
A clear direction, but no detailed plans
The movement is expected to continue expanding.
Roel explained, "Following Q's principles, our growth has been gradual, achieved through testing, learning, and preserving what works well. While we have a direction, we don't have a detailed long-term plan."
The result of their approach is that nationwide coverage of teams is expected within the next 2 to 3 years. This allows Q to assist all police colleagues across the country in innovation by providing a clear process, methodologies, competencies, and skills.
Bypassing traditional hierarchy
One of the beauties of their bottom-up transformation network is that it allows them to bypass the traditional hierarchy. By activating the network, they can dodge thick layers of bureaucracy and, instead, tap into the collective wisdom of the many passionate people within the police force.
The result? A significant boost in the innovation power of this huge (and hugely important) organization.
Europol nominated Q for an 'Excellence Award,' and international interest for this unique change movement is growing as more (police) organizations are understanding the potential of supplementing their traditional hierarchies with a bottom-up network organization.
Hopefully, in due time, it will not just be about supplementing the traditional hierarchy, but about replacing it entirely.
But hey, let's take it step by step.
There's a lot to be done at Q, concludes Roel: "As our lessons yield progress, the police force's biggest challenge regarding innovation remains the successful and rapid scaling of technological innovation for 70,000 personnel."
"We've made a good start, but as a Police force, we're not there yet. It is encouraging that the Q method is not only supported but also recognized at the top of the organization. It's seen as a catalyst for both organizational development and innovation."
Eager for more?
In our newsletter, we'll soon share a clip from the interview we conducted with Jeroen and Roel. In it, they reveal their top tip for changemakers aiming to make a significant impact.
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