Solving a Complex Problem is as Easy as 1,2,3

Virtually every organization deals with at least one complex problem that can seem insurmountable.  Large social problems such as gut wrenching poverty, a crippled educational system or rampant gun violence are just a few examples.  Sometimes a complex problem comes in the form of a big aspirational goal – what is sometimes known as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

Rich Negrin and Violence Strategy Press ConferenceThis past year, our BHAG in the City of Philadelphia has been reducing gun violence.   Just today, the City of Philadelphia announced the GunStat program’s progress a year after its launch.  Recently winning the United States Conference of Mayors’ City Livability Award, the effort represented a new way of doing business for the City of Philadelphia’s battle against gun violence.  It focused on proactively fighting violence through an emphasis on neighborhoods and dangerous individuals, not reactively “arresting its way” out of the problem.  The effort took a holistic approach to combating violence, bringing every necessary stakeholder to the table.  This important effort looks across all sectors; prevention, enforcement, intervention and community empowerment to tackle this complex problem.  Mayor Nutter and his Chief of Staff Everett Gillison used their political will to get the program up and running by pulling in all partners and setting the aggressive vision.  My office worked with the Mayor’s Office and Public Safety Director, Mike Resnick, to create an actual system and process to design the GunStat approach.  (All partners helped draft a comprehensive strategy.)  Then Police Commissioner Ramsey and the District Attorney would chair the meetings and begin implementation.  Deputy Commissioner Nola Joyce then came to the table with critical data.  And then PhillyRising, our neighborhood quality of life initiative, brought together key city and social services agencies and the community (through a network of community heroes) who were willing to join the effort to take back neighborhoods.  What resulted was a unique ecosystem of public safety to reduce gun violence including statistic and map-driven efforts; the sharp increase of bail for suspects with guns; a PPD tipline through phone, text, or email; support from local judges; stiffer sentences and increased targeted resources for neighborhood initiatives.  The City, all its resources, working with Police, prosecutors, the courts and the community all focused on the same goal – reduce gun violence – save lives.

The Outcome

What resulted was a 50% decrease in shootings and a 25% decrease in homicides in areas using the GunStat program, and significantly, a 30% reduction in homicides across the city.  While we certainly aren’t close to being done or celebrating a victory (the battle is far from over) the initial success of the GunStat effort shows that addressing a problem as complex as reducing gun violence in the nation’s 5th largest city is not an impossible task. It can be done if approached in the right way with the right partners.   I think every complex problem—from one plaguing a large city to one hurting your organization–can be solved if the effort involves the following three essential components:

1)      Collaboration.  Isn’t just a buzzword.  Complex problems are wide-spread and difficult to solve because they are affected by so many factors. That’s why complex solutions require multiple stakeholders acting outside their individual stovepipe being brought to the table to work together.  As every agency, organization and individual is a “subject matter expert” in their respective field, inviting the right stakeholders to the table brings the insights and resources necessary to giving a large-scale effort any chance to be successful.  Identifying the right stakeholders, however, does not always translate to effective collaboration.  Before multiple parties join an effort, a mutual trust needs to be established.  This means no hidden agendas.  Solving a complex problem often requires leaving egos at the door.  In Philadelphia, we needed to create a collaborative community of public safety of one mind around guns.  Every stakeholder needs to be involved and willing to contribute to the cause for the right reason: to genuinely make real sustained progress on the issue of gun violence. This will result in genuine support for other stakeholder’s efforts and the sharing of resources, ultimately pulling the mass effort together.  This means not only spending much needed productive time together but also being available for each other when needed to offer support.  Without this type of tangible collaboration, a real commitment of time, talent and treasure, collaboration is merely a buzzword.  True collaboration is shared effort, shared praise and yes, shared accountability.

2)      Communication. The idea of “collaboration” too often results in inconsequential meetings. For a complex problem involving multiple stakeholders to be solved, clear communication channels need to be established to make sure meetings and brainstormed solutions turn into actions. Effective communication involves taking meetings seriously—with robust conversations and actionable follow-up. Communication also involves listening and being open to advice from other parties. (GunStat stakeholders were great at this: the Police were open to ideas; social services were open to ideas on how to better support community members; etc.)  The last piece of effective communication is the willingness to share information—no gatekeepers. Individual agencies need to be open about their data.  This increases accountability and provides every player at the table the chance to make informed decisions.  This also requires great trust.  Despite the fact that GunStat participants regularly share sensitive criminal intelligence, not once, has there been an unauthorized release of information.  Done well, strong trust and communication is the life blood of an effort.

3)      Empowerment. At a certain point in every process, certain stakeholders need to “let go” of their project piece so that other appropriate stakeholders can make an impact.  Although the Mayor, Everett Gillison and I worked to set up the program, we all knew when to step back and let the experts (i.e. the Police, the D.A.’s office, other city departments) take over and do their thing.  We needed to empower these agencies, with the resources, support and freedom to make tangible changes that they felt were necessary.  Sometimes, an important piece to empowerment is to “step-away” and allow the key implementers to run with the effort.  This can and often means the original vision can be modified as practical action plans are refined.  This allows for modification and ensures that each stakeholder can effectively contribute.  As long as each modification aligns with the effort’s over-arching goal, these refinements result in a more cohesive, well-planned strategy and more effective overall effort that gets real results.  That is the only way to fully empower all key stakeholders.  That includes the public.  Many of our efforts have been focused on empowering many of the positive efforts that are alive and well in our most dangerous places.  Only with a fully engaged vibrant community can true lasting change happen.

Using these three steps, collaboration, communication and empowerment, the City of Philadelphia has just begun to tackle the complex problem of gun violence and achieve the impressive early results shown above.  Sounds as easy as 1-2-3 but it’s not.  Significantly, we believe this effort is saving lives.  While we certainly aren’t dancing in the end zone, we do plan on following these three steps again and again until our City has reached the Mayor’s goal of being one of the safest big cities in the country.  Do you think these steps will work for your organization’s complex problems?

Rich headshot 1

Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.



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