Don’t Shoot – Lessons on Leading Change

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America (David Kennedy. Bloomsbury USA. 2011) is a powerful and important book. Harvard researcher, David Kennedy wondered why our approaches to dealing with gang violence were so ineffective. With some 25 years of research on the streets, he found that our assumptions about gang members were wrong; therefore, our approaches to improving conditions didn’t work. He found that the criminal justice system couldn’t just take a “massive one-size-fits-all” approach. The strategy had to be highly focused.

Here’s what he said, “It was narrow – don’t shoot. The normal frame said, ‘Don’t be in gangs, don’t commit crimes, don’t sell drugs, don’t carry weapons, don’t violate your probation, don’t drink and drug. Turn your life around’. . . . This cut to the chase: Don’t hurt people. Say any more, ‘Don’t carry guns, don’t sell drugs, don’t recruit kids into your gang,’ – you couldn’t back it up.” “There was just too much of it, and too little of us.” Once gang members (and others in the community) realized that law enforcement couldn’t possibly deliver, people felt they had been lied to. Kennedy said that programs that worked used “focused deterrence” – focus on one problem and on the group of core offenders.

The statistics suggest that this highly focused approach, which includes law enforcement, family, community leaders, and key offenders is amazingly effective.

What are the implications for those of us who work in organizations?

Plenty. (And I have only begun to read and think about the lessons in this fine book.)

Effective programs focus on a single thing. In gang violence it was – don’t shoot. If you do, the world will come crashing down around you. Instead of trying to tackle everything that needs to be corrected, they chose one big thing. And, they found that by reducing shootings, it made communities safer and other problems began to dissipate.

The community was deeply involved. They held meetings with key gang leaders and told them that they had a file on them and were prepared to prosecute them, but if they cooperated, law enforcement would put the file away. Then parents, church leaders, and others told the gang leader how important he was to their community. His leadership could make a difference. They said that the community counted on him. They needed him. Some organizations take a “who moved my cheese” approach that softly threatens people. Mice: either change or you’ll die.

Some organizations focus too much on appreciative creation of visions. The Don’t Shoot approach links the realities of the situation (i.e. unless we change, our doors could close; just look at these trends and numbers) along with the strong message that you – employees, supervisors, managers- are critical to our success.)

On the radio program Fresh Air, Kennedy was asked about the “broken windows” approach that some communities take. If broken windows, etc. are fixed, it sends a signal and other things are ignored. That seems to be true, but some communities not only fix windows, they stop cars for the least offense. In short, they turn the neighborhoods into police states. Violence and drug use does appear to go down, but it destroys the community in the process. The lesson for leaders: there is a big cost to a command and control approach to change.

What are your thoughts?

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