How planning supports decision making in public safety

Decision making in public safety involves high stakes; a five-step planning process can help leaders analyze options and make better decisions


This article is the third part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership. Read part one here and part two here.

As we continue our exploration toward Finding the Leader in You, this month we'll focus on two elements of leadership that are often taken for granted – planning and decision making.

Public safety leadership involves a number of challenges, often in situations where the stakes are high. Decisions made while on the job have the potential to impact both human life and personal liberties.

These decisions are often made in fractions of a second and are commonly based on quickly processed information.

Effective planning often requires a roadmap.
Effective planning often requires a roadmap. (Photo/Police1)

While we can’t plan for every possible scenario, effective planning offers a method to the madness that better prepares us for the future. Whether engaged in short-term planning approaches or longer-term strategic plans, organizing important goals and objectives makes us better at providing service to the public.

Planning 101

Planning is the process we use to select goals and determine how to achieve them. It arranges the use of our resources in an orderly, economical, and goal-accomplishing manner.

It’s also a description of what we want to accomplish in the future and establishes some type of agreement on the means for achieving it.

Proper planning assists both supervisors and organizations with preparing for essential mission tasks. Planning is a valuable component for supervisors because it:

  • Serves as a guide or reference for training and performance while simplifying direction and facilitating coordination of group efforts.

  • Keeps everyone working in the same direction while promoting effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Forces critical and analytical thinking.
  • Forces objective evaluation of past performance and offers continued attention to improvement of practices and procedures.
  • Helps avoid crisis management.

Planning is more detailed and specific at the operational level and more general at the administrative level. First-line leaders generally need more technical skill to effectively supervise at the street level, while mid-level managers deal with more broad-based and conceptual issues focused on the entire organizational structure. These distinctly different planning levels are commonly referred to as operational and strategic.

At the operational planning level, there is more focus on day-to-day activities geared toward accomplishing the basic functions of the organization (handling calls for service, etc.). At the strategic planning level, a more conceptual approach is utilized to define and achieve organizational goals (budget and staffing issues, etc.). Operational planning approaches generally support strategic planning initiatives, thereby allowing a given organization to make progress toward progressive goals and objectives.

Goals and Objectives

Effective planning often requires a roadmap that plots the direction both personnel and the organization need to take to carry out required tasks. Goals and objectives provide this direction and are an essential part of any planning initiative. Goals are a general statement of what an organization desires to accomplish – where we are going. Objectives are specific statements about how goals will be achieved – how we are going to get there. Objectives must be observable, measurable, and have some time element or deadline to be effective.

Limitations and Barriers to Planning

Although planning is an essential part of how supervisors organize the collective efforts of subordinates, it is not without its challenges. Planning often leads to changes in policies and procedures. Most humans resist change since it brings about a certain level of discomfort and uncertainty. Fear of the unknown and the inability to accurately forecast how a plan will truly impact personnel or situations can be a stumbling block. Additionally, lack of resources (staffing, budget, equipment, etc.) often impedes implementation of a plan.

Therefore, it’s extremely important for leaders to be realistic when setting both personal and organizational goals and objectives, and to be prepared to change plans as conditions demand. A change in plans does not render the initial planning process useless – or as General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Five-Step Planning Process

Even though many plans are informal and require little thought, more complex planning initiatives should involve a systematic approach, which provides structure and focus. Consider the following five-step process:

  1. Recognize the need for a plan: In this step we identify the problem and potential causes while also determining who or what can solve the problem.

  2. Formulate goals and objectives: This step aids in complex problem solving and involves crafting objectives that are clear and concise. If we consider that the end result of the plan is our goal, then objectives provide us with the steps we need to move toward the goal.
  3. Define the present situation: This is an important step since it involves gathering and analyzing data, while soliciting from those who are close to the problem or have related experience. Compiling relevant statistical information and determining resource availability are also part of this step.
  4. Develop a plan of action: Be realistic and consider alternatives. Make sure the plan falls in line with organizational goals and objectives. Outline specific personnel assignments and accountability standards.
  5. Make a decision: This is often the most difficult step, primarily because humans possess an inherent fear of failure. Decisions should involve rational alternatives and should also be based on input from key internal/external stakeholders.

Decision Making 101

Public safety professionals are no strangers to the power of effective decision making. Whether deciding on the most effective course of action or simply trying to pick where to eat lunch, the average human makes roughly 35,000 decisions per day. But while decisions are a basic function of life, there are times where we suffer from what I refer to as paralysis by analysis. Fear of failure or fear of making the wrong decision sometimes cause hesitation or even nonaction. We previously discussed the five-step planning process, so it should come as no surprise that step number five (make a decision) is typically where effective planning falls short.

Effective decision-making is the choice between rational alternatives. With some exceptions, it is primarily an individual process. Although groups certainly lend input into the process, the final decision normally rests in the hands of a single person – in this case, the supervisor. When an individual chooses between alternatives, it implies one solution is better than the other; this is considered the correct course of action. When a supervisor makes a decision, they believe it is the best course of action based on their current circumstances, training, and experience.

That last point is an important one, because we all have different perspectives – we perceive events and make decisions through a unique lens. This is one of the reasons decisions can be so frustrating to subordinates; they often possess a different perspective than the supervisor. While we can never see things from the exact same perspective as another person, effective communication within the organization and among both supervisors and subordinates (something we’ll get into more in a future article) can help align perspectives.

Factors and Limitations That Influence the Decision Maker

Our decisions are largely based on our comprehension of a problem, coupled with our training and experience. Both internal and external factors play a role with influencing the decision maker. Internal factors come from within the decision maker and typically evolve from:

  • Intelligence and experience

  • Personal values
  • Psychological state or capacity
  • Fatigue, emotion or other personal “noise” that impacts behavior

Conversely, external factors are generally outside of the decision maker’s control and are equally powerful in guiding the decision-making process. These factors commonly include:

  • Rule of law (legislative, court-driven, etc.)
  • Organizational policy
  • Available information or relevant training
  • Unanticipated events and community pressures

Six-Step Decision-Making Process

Considering our capacity to make thousands of decisions each day, effective supervisory decision making should involve a methodical process of analysis that helps a supervisor select from rational alternatives that best serve the agency, employees, and the public. Consider the following six-step process:

  1. Clarify the problem: This starts with not only seeing the problem clearly but examining the desired outcome. In other words, determining the overall cause of the problem rather than simply treating the symptoms.

  2. Research and gather facts: Here, it’s important to take a rational approach and know that you will likely never have access to all the facts. This is the step where too much analysis can often occur.
  3. Develop, determine and evaluate alternatives: Don’t be afraid to solicit opinions from your subordinates or other leaders who have more experience. It’s also important to be aware of personal bias while not being afraid to think outside the box. Avoid the status quo – "We have always done it that way" stifles innovation.
  4. Select the best alternative: Once you’ve conducted appropriate due diligence, make a decision and stick to it. Don’t forget to consider how your decision will impact the agency and your personnel, while maintaining visibility on relevant policy implications.
  5. Implement the decision: A decision is obviously worthless if not acted upon; this is typically the most time-consuming part of the process.
  6. Conducted appropriate follow-up: Provide opportunities for feedback and don’t be afraid to revise your decision after you’ve had time to determine the overall impact and viability. Remember, things always look good on paper!

Other Important Factors

Organizational leaders should also factor in some important considerations when making decisions that may impact the agency, its personnel, or any external stakeholders. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there any civil or criminal liability implications?

  • Is there a precedent that’s already been set?
  • How will this impact agency morale?
  • What kind of resources are required?
  • How will it impact community relations and/or public safety?
  • Are there any policy implications?

It’s also important to aim decisions toward desired outcomes. Be creative and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. I remind new supervisors of two key points that typically lead to hesitation when making decisions. First, you won’t always make the right decision. Second, those under your charge won’t always be happy with the decisions you make. Don’t let fear of failure lead to inaction; trust your instincts. Ancient philosopher Maimonides was spot on when he rationalized that, "The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision."

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