How being a detective set me on the path to the world of business management

Major crime investigations demand you get it right

Much of what I know about managing initiatives I learned while a detective in New Zealand Police. If you don’t learn on the fly here you don’t survive.

Investigating major crimes, such as a homicide or drug operation, is both fascinating and a brilliant learning opportunity. Investigations need structure, especially in the early hours, to ensure the right people are mobilized, everyone is focused on the right outcome, and the team can pivot as things change. Investigations are the ultimate in agile management as the structure built around them must support the need to respond to the exigencies of the case and emerging information while maintaining sufficient process to prove the case, at various stages, including when interviewing witnesses and suspects and ultimately taking the case through court without breaking the chain of evidence.

Investigating major crimes, such as a homicide or drug operation, is both fascinating and a brilliant learning opportunity.

Some of the best ‘project managers’ I worked alongside were highly trained police officers with pragmatism written all over them. They knew how to plan and then get on and do what they said they would. They’d document their work because they knew others would rely on what they’d discovered. They only met when they needed to. Major crime teams would often have two daily briefings – often stand-ups – one to update and guide investigators at the start of the day, and one to bring everything together at the end of the day, however long that day turned out to be. All of this, and other mechanisms, built extraordinarily strong teams, committed to the right result and to each other. No-one cared about status or ‘air-time’. They wanted to do the best job they possibly could.

Later in my police career I found myself negotiating with one of the world’s largest IT multinationals over perceived mega-project contract inequities. Backing me up, I had a ‘project’ team largely comprised of experienced, talented police officers who had been handpicked and then seconded into a major IT initiative. In an unguarded moment the lead consortium negotiator said that in all his years of project delivery to customers all over the world he’d never seen a team as strong, united, professional and capable as ours, and he wished he could take them – the entire team – into their business to strengthen their project delivery capability.

I told him that the police team was simply doing what they’d been trained to do. This included making sure we had the evidence to support whatever position we took. And if we struck an issue or could see one on the horizon we made sure we’d looked at options to fix and had settled on a preferred way out. We knew that planning was critical and we knew that plans had to be adaptable to accommodate change. We knew that process and structure had to be just-enough to support the completion of work, and do so in collaborative ways but not so much that it dragged the team down. And the best of the best were marvelous storytellers, not shy of embellishing a tale to provoke reactions and bring people in.

This included making sure we had the evidence to support whatever position we took.

I also explained that our guys had taken the time to understand the needs of the consortium team, and respect the skills and commitment they brought into the project. This meant that while we were resolute in our position we weren’t bloody-minded and could always find ways to sort out difficult issues. Ultimately all of these factors combined to deliver a fair contract variation result for both NZ Police and the consortium.

The lessons I learned from this mega-project were extensive, and ultimately set me on the path I’m now on. Even more profound were the lessons I learned in the very first steps of my career. I still remember the best piece of career advice I received which was ‘keep your mouth shut for a year and what you learn by watching others will be priceless.’ And that advice was so right. Pick the best practitioners, those that get things done with little fuss, watch them, and learn.

‘keep your mouth shut for a year and what you learn by watching others will be priceless.’

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2 thoughts on “How being a detective set me on the path to the world of business management”

  1. Great article but I think you have to have walked the same walk to fully understand what you are talking about, Tony. The same values and principles apply the world over but sometimes it takes a lifetime to discover them.

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