There are a large number of things wrong re: the situation with young electronics enthusiast Ahmed Mohamed being taken from school in handcuffs for bringing in an electronic clock. Those who are interested in innovation in America should watch this story closely.
The thing I want to focus on in this article is the following quote from Irving police spokesman James McLellan in the Dallas News:
“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”
This statement is important because it is an excellent example of failure and imagination. In addition, it ends by combining two imagination failures to inform action via “The Consultant’s Dilemma.”
Imagination can fail an organization in two obvious ways: we can imagine something that isn’t true, make decisions, and act on that imagined situation. And we can also fail to imagine something and miss out on an opportunity entirely.
Failure by conjuring something that is not true
McLellan, and the police service he represents, is able to list at least two imaginary potential situations for Mohamed’s clock that are frightening to him–two things that never came to pass, the fear of which led his police service down a path of action which will consume some amount of their time, attention, and standing in the community they serve.
This kind of failure is problematic, because it prevents us from making clear observations about the world as the world actually exists. By focusing on a threat conjured by our imagination, we lose focus on our real problems.
We expend resources that might have been used on something useful to instead quell the fears of our imagination. We become engaged with our imagination, and the issues of the real world–which tends to lack imagination–can overtake us.
Irving TX police, the organization most responsible for this particular failure, is now experiencing this. Perhaps not on any truly grand scale; it’s unlikely anyone will lose their job, for example. But their position in their community is damaged, and they will need to spend time and effort repairing that.
For the sake of the community they serve, I hope that Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd implements systems to help his officers discern the difference between their imagined world and the real world, or at least distinguish between their observations and their orientation.
Failure through lack of understanding
McLellan is also in the unenviable position of publicly stating that he isn’t certain what a clock is for, or why anyone would build one. Just in case he has not yet been informed, they’re very useful for telling time. People have been making mechanical versions since the 1200s. Wikipedia has a brief but informative section on the uses of digital clocks as well.
The Consultant’s Dilemma
Here is where the rubber meets the road: the consultant’s dilemma. People rarely enjoy paying a consultant to tell them “Well, there’s really nothing here that’s crazy or needs fixing. It’s all pretty normal,” unless that consultant is an oncologist.
Police, being similar enough to consultants in this situation, are rewarded on arrests. They’re rewarded on stopping crime. They’re rewarded on sending a strong message, etc., etc.
So if we combine both types of imagination failures we can create a scenario where we make an arrest or a charge based on our own conjured fears combined with our lack of understanding.
Apparently some problems ensued when Ahmed Mohamed’s story of simply making a clock created a mental mismatch with the Irving Texas police’s view of “bomb.”
The end result, sped along via the consultant’s dilemma, is that action was taken: a 14-year-old boy with an interest in electronics and inventing things was removed from his school in handcuffs.
There will certainly be a wide variety of opinions expressed. Some of them will make sense. Some of them won’t.
Regardless of public opinion, the Irving police department’s imagination failures will have extending ripples of impact:
- Irving TX police will expend resources attempting to convince their community that they are effective at their job despite this pretty obvious failure (or perhaps they will use this failure as an example of their effectiveness, if that’s the way they want to play it–either way, they waste resources).
- USA police in general will be associated with the imagination failures demonstrated by the Irving TX force. In the same way that police enjoy a unified respect for the uniform, they also endure a unified disrespect for the uniform when obvious failures occur (and those obvious failures are increasingly making the news). The unified respect/disrespect is an Entryway in this regard.
- Irving TX school district will expend resources dealing with this. The primary error here is with the police dept., as the responsibility for public safety belongs with the police, as does the responsibility for the choice to handcuff and interrogate a young inventor. However, the school and its teachers will face ridicule all the same. Parents of students who create things will reconsider whether this is a good environment for their children.
- Texas educational institutions and Texas itself will face international ridicule.
- The USA in general will face external and internal ridicule for the treatment of this young inventor.
- Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old, will have to make sense of the entire episode.
- Ahmed Mohamed’s family and immediate community will have to make sense of the entire episode.
- Everyone who hears about this will have to make sense of the entire episode.
- Those who share something in common with Ahmed Mohamed–whether it is religion, skin color, an interest in electronics, gender, or a combination of any of these individual attributes–will have to make sense of the entire episode.
How various individuals and organizations respond to these issues will give an insight into their character. If there is a positive outcome from the entire episode, it will be the opportunity to develop character. As my dad (and maybe yours as well) said, “It builds character.” Unfortunate events can be Entryways.
Use this as an example to avoid clouding or short circuiting your own observe-orient-decide-act loop. If you mistake your “orientation” for an “observation” and then consequently make decisions and take action without a correct observation of the real world, you will create trouble for yourself and lose initiative in your environment.
Just to spare someone the time: Yes, certainly it’s the job of police to imagine unforseen threats and prepare for them. But it is more important for them to focus and act on the real ones–“Predictive” policing isn’t the sort of thing many people genuinely want to live with.
When imagination clouds the comprehension of unfolding events, then a problem will arise. This is why Red Team exercises occur under specific conditions for specific purpose.
The James McLellan quote at the head of this article demonstrates a police force that is so wrapped up in the conjured threats of their own imagination that they are unable to understand what a clock is for. ‘Nuff said.