Failure and imagination

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.

Some outcomes

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 electronicsgender, 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.



Yes but…

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. I agree with the spirit of your argument/analysis. But I’ll also point out that the cops were not the only one who could have handled this better. Where are those who actually called the police to report the incident? The teachers or School Administrator? It started with them. “Why the school handled it the way they did” is the bigger question.

    1. In general, I respectfully disagree. The school system and teachers are not qualified to assess a bomb threat. If a teacher was concerned about the clock, I don’t object to her raising the issue–she’s not trained to know the difference between a random box of electronics and a bomb.

      While I personally think she overreacted I don’t call her out on her decision to get clarification if she was genuinely concerned.

      The police, on the other hand, are charged with understanding the difference between a bomb and a box of DIY electronics. The fact that the school was not evacuated leads me to believe that everyone quickly realized this was not an actual bomb. At that point, the statement analyzed in my essay comes into play along with all of the problems of pursuing one’s imagination to the point of losing focus on the real world. That problem falls primarily with the police as it was they who then chose to remove a young inventor from his school in handcuffs for further interrogation.

      The errors with the school system begin with the principal attempting to get the student make a signed statement and also interrogating him in the presence of police without granting the student access to his parents or counsel. This will be a problem for both the police and the administration to explain at a later date, probably in front of a judge.

      Another aspect not covered in the essay above is “zero tolerance” and policy/procedures. I will probably write more on this as well. It is definitely an area where the school system and how it operates plays into the situation. And also the police.

      The short version though is: “zero tolerance” and many police policy/procedures create a dreadful efficiency in which the “decide” aspect of the the OODA loop is pre-determined (usually in a time/place far removed from the actual incident and by someone who will have little understanding of actual incidents as they arise). While this allows “just doing my job” ass cover, it doesn’t lead to effective justice or treatment of citizens.

      There are a lot of big questions in this incident and I’m glad to see so many people engaging with so many of them.

    1. I suspect that Ahmed Mohamed’s name and skin color both played a role in how the officers treated him. If it is, it would be another example of the officers’ imagination of the behavior of people with names reminiscent of the middle east or their imagination of people with not-white skin’s behavior overtaking the officers’ ability to accurately perceive the world as it truly is.

      I wasn’t there and don’t know the officers so I’m loathe to go too far down that line. My intent here is mainly to outline how one’s imagination can create problems for oneself.

      I am heartened to know that Ahmed Mohamed’s family has retained a lawyer. I believe that for the direct community and wider community to feel that there is justice in this case that there will need to be a deeper look into the nature of the imaginations of all involved and how that influenced the actions leading up to the handcuffing and removing from a school of a 14-year-old maker. Also, denying him access to parents and legal counsel while interrogating him should also feature in that investigation.

      There exists plenty of research to suggest that minority boys are subject to racist–disparate application of power dependent on race–police actions:

      For the sake of the Irving TX community, I hope that the police are taking seriously the issue of how police imagination and orientation can cause profound displacements in how justice is experienced. Without examining this and taking whatever necessary corrective action, they will be unable to provide meaningful justice in their community.

      As noted above, and also in private conversations with some national law enforcement leaders I’ve spoken with re: this article, there are also procedural/policy issues involved which can, in situations like with Ahmed Mohamed, truly systematize disparate application of justice. I will write more on that aspect next week.

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