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Helping organisations prepare for the unexpected

Research by Professor Ian Colville is key to organisations navigating crises, including the Wilshire Police Service in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings.

Police tape tied across a stairwell, saying 'Do not cross'
Ian Colville's work encourages organisations to be flexible and adaptive

In 2018, the city of Salisbury was subject to a chemical attack. In scenes rarely seen outside a spy thriller, two Russian intelligence agents tried to assassinate a defector with a nerve agent.

The Wiltshire Police Service (WPS) – like most other police forces – could not have anticipated this situation, and had no specific plan for managing it. Luckily, they had spent the previous two years working with Professor Ian Colville to prepare for the unexpected, improving their ability to manage this crisis.

Helping the Police manage crises

In recent years, there has been a significant rise in emergency situations within policing. Police forces have had to learn how to prevent and respond to increasingly diverse terror attacks, as well as deepening political turmoil.

Ian’s work with the WPS has helped them cope better in this unpredictable environment. He has helped them to better manage unexpected change, while staying effective and reliable.

He did this by analysing the structure, culture and values of the WPS. The main problem he discovered was that the Force had made radical changes to its managerial structure. This destabilised their organisation, leaving them poorly equipped to handle unexpected situations.

Ian’s recommendations led the WPS to re-establish the role of Deputy Chief Constable (DCC). This proved essential to the successful response to the Salisbury attack. The DCC and the Chief Constable (CC) were able to share the high-level responsibilities and manage them effectively. While the CC dealt with media and government and provided visible leadership, the DCC was able to focus on handling the operational activities, coordinating with agencies like COBRA, the NHS and UK Counter-Terrorism.

A stress-test of the organisation

Kier Pritchard, the incoming CC, paid tribute to Ian’s work saying that the Salisbury poisoning incident was a ‘stress-test of the effectiveness of the organisational and cultural changes [made as a result of Ian’s research]’.

Ian continued to work with the WPS after the event, to help them make sense of the lessons learned from the poisoning incident.

Organisational sensemaking

Ian’s research into ‘organisational sensemaking’ was the foundation of his work with the WPS. This is a relatively new discipline that looks at how the people within an organisation interpret its structures, and the impact this has on how it operates.

Ian has spent the past two decades looking at the effect of change or unfamiliarity on how people lead organisations, specifically in high-risk environments like policing.

His research showed that unpredictable events lead to uncertainty, which results in more risks and mistakes. In these situations, relying on normal procedures can be harmful. To function effectively, organisations must learn how to adapt to a constantly changing environment.

Ian recommends that organisations continuously evolve, rather than occasionally make large changes. Organisations that are agile and flexible are better able to respond when the unpredictable happens.

Find out more about research at Bath


Further work

The research, including the WPS case study, fed into the development of a piece of software called Footdown. Footdown is a diagnostic tool which collects and analyses data to inform decision making. It’s used by major businesses like Vodafone and HSBC to help them better understand how their organisations work.