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Notes from a Reflective Practitioner of InnovationBy Ellen Schall
The following article was originally published in Innovation in American Government: Challenges, Opportunities, and Dilemmas (Alan A. Altshuler and Robert D. Behn eds.; Brookings Institution Press, 1997). Reprinted by the kind permission of The Brookings Institution Press.Part 1 of 4
Many of the questions about innovation are posed from the outside looking in: How can society get more innovation? How can a good innovation be differentiated from a poor one? How important should innovation be as a public value?1 This chapter is an attempt to answer a question posed by those on the inside looking out: What can managers do to foster innovation? How can they create organizational climates in which innovation can flourish? On this inside-out question, I offer the experiential perspective of the manager who has struggled to innovate and to create the conditions under which others could innovate.
ReflectionsFor years, before I knew it was a term of art, I was called a reflective practitioner.2 To me, this meant that, in contrast to the practitioner who told war stories about his triumphs and defeats, I was someone who enjoyed thinking about my work at some distance and trying to abstract lessons for myself as well as for others. This tendency to reflect was clearly useful, but I have only recently come to try to articulate more precisely what it means so that I could develop the capacity in others,
Donald A. Schön, a consultant and Massachusetts Institute of Technology social scientist, has written definitively on the reflective practitioner. In The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Schön offers what he calls an "epistemology of practice" based on a close analysis of what practitioners do as they "reflect-in-action," In Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, he offers guidance to those in the business of educating practitioners. Schön describes, in somewhat complex terms, his ideas about the "art" of professional practice and how and to what extent professionals think about what they know.
The concept of reflective practice has much to do with theories, developed over the years, on learning in general. James Coleman, a sociologist in the fields of learning and education, describes experiential learning as inductive, where one goes from the particular to the general. In inductive learning, the sequence would begin with "action in a particular situation and the observance of the effects of that action, move to the understanding of these effects in a particular instance, then to understanding the general principle, and finally to application through action in a new circumstance within the range of generalization."3 Another learning theorist, David Kolb, has also described experiential learning as a four-stage process: (1) concrete experience, (2) observations and reflections, (3) formation of abstract concepts and generalizations, and (4) testing applications of concepts in new situations.4
These frameworks should help locate the contribution of practitioners and suggest goals toward which "reflective" practitioners might aim: generalizable observations grounded in the concrete that meet the test of applicability in new situations. The days are gone when any good story from a well-respected manager was considered useful (or when an academic could credibly spin theory not located in practice). Reflective practice can be understood as the ability to form abstract principles based on practitioners' observations of their own concrete experiences and offer those observations for testing by others,
Thus I offer the reflections of one manager who attempted to innovate and to set the stage for the innovations of others. The organization in which these observations are grounded is the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), where I served as commissioner from 1983 to 1990.
Department of Juvenile Justice: 1983-90In 1983 DJJ was a city agency like many others. Its mission was not clear; it had responsibility for only a piece of the system of which it was a part; its staff was not working to its potential; its reputation was weak; and it had just lost a major political battle. In 1978 a mayoral task force had described Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, DJJ's major secure-detention facility, as a "case history in failure." Staff turnover was high, among both the line workers and top management: In twenty-nine years, Spofford had twenty-two directors.
In 1979 Mayor Edward I. Koch created DJJ as a separate agency, pulling its functions out of the Human Resources Administration, a much larger, superagency, created by John Lindsay when he was mayor. DJJ was charged with responsibility for pretrial detention and aftercare services for children under sixteen who had been arrested and were awaiting disposition of their cases.
In 1983 Mayor Koch appointed me commissioner of DJJ, and I embarked on an effort to transform the agency. To this task, I brought more commitment than experience. I had been a Legal Aid lawyer and had worked for the city in an oversight agency, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Criminal Justice. Before moving to DJJ, I served for three years as deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, with responsibility for the implementation of programs and the oversight of compliance with federal court consent decrees on conditions in the city's jails. That job taught me the difference between announcing a policy and having line staff carry it out consistently. Mostly, however, it filled me with examples of the hazards of bureaucratic management. Other than three weeks at the John F. Kennedy School of Government's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government, I had little exposure to or understanding of what it took to transform a public agency.
My DJJ journey was a long but infinitely interesting one--with stops and starts, missteps and mistakes--as well as one graced with extraordinary help along the way. And I had the good fortune to attract a committed group of fellow-travelers, one of whom succeeded me and served for four years as commissioner.
Over a ten-year stretch, the agency reinvented itself. DJJ redefined its mission to encompass both custody and care, and then prevention. It created a case-management program for juveniles in detention.5 It developed a community-based aftercare component to follow kids released from detention home. These two programs made DJJ a 1986 winner in the Ford Foundation and John F. Kennedy School of Government Awards Program for Innovations in State and Local Government. To New York City from Washington state, DJJ brought Homebuilders, a new way of serving families both intensively and preventively; adapted the program to work with families of children in the juvenile justice system; and seeded the effort to have that technology become part of New York state and New York City's systems of serving families.6 DJJ reinvigorated existing staff and attracted talented new staff. It stanched the flow of staff leaving and turned around the pattern at the top; DJJ became distinguished for the number of people who stayed for the long term. Finally, the challenge that resulted in the demise of the agency's previous administration was met: In 1989 the last approval necessary was achieved for the physical replacement of Spofford; ground breaking began for two new smaller facilities in 1992, and occupancy is scheduled for 1998. In 1989 DJJ was featured in the Tom Peters's PBS documentary on Excellence in the Public Sector. And in 1992 it was selected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as one of five sites for participation in a national juvenile detention initiative.
The reflective lessons from this journey are rich and varied. Those offered here concern the process of organizational transformation. In a study of organizational transition, consultants Richard Beckhard and Reuben Harris identify three stages: (1) articulating a vision for the future, (2) diagnosing the present, and (3) managing the transition from here to there.7 At this last stage, the lessons of DJJ are most likely to be applicable to others.
From this DJJ experience, I can extract lessons that address three fundamental tasks facing any public manager, particularly one trying to be innovative:
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