Link My iMpact  
Link Strategic Positioning Tool Kit  
To Executive Education
To Kresge Library

Forensic Laboratory Directors and Managers Hone Leadership Skills

8/30/2005 --

Ross School Executive Education hosts 33rd Annual Crime Laboratory Development Symposium.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—More than 230 crime laboratory directors of forensic laboratories across the country and the FBI Laboratory took a break from crime scene investigations and forensic analysis to gather at the Stephen M. Ross School for the 33rd Annual Crime Laboratory Development Symposium in August.

The four-day "Preparing Future Leaders" symposium was organized by Executive Education and sponsored by the FBI Laboratory. Topics covered included managing the unexpected, leading high-reliability organizations and applying Positive Organizational Scholarship—a new movement in organizational studies that focuses on developing human strength, producing resilience and restoration, fostering vitality and cultivating extraordinary individuals, units and organizations—to the day-to-day activities of forensic laboratories.

Naval aircraft carriers, nuclear power-generating plants, air traffic control systems and hospital emergency rooms are examples of high-reliability organizations, Karl Weick, the Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, told the forensic managers. In a high-reliability organization, one mistake can have severe repercussions and ruin a career, added Weick, who has served as a consultant to NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service.

Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, professor of management and organizations, discussed five principles—attentive to failure, reluctant to simplify interpretations, sensitive to operations, cultivate resilience and organize around expertise rather than hierarchy—which they said help organizations become more mindful and better able to manage unexpected events.

Attentive to Failure
"High-reliability organizations are preoccupied with failures, especially small ones," said Sutcliffe. The best nuclear power plants perform root-cause analysis on small things that happen every day. "They abhor getting it wrong. They believe paying attention to small things will prevent the small things from compounding and getting bigger." Small problems often are early warning signals of deepening trouble and give insight into the health of the system, she added.

Reluctant to Simplify Interpretations
Though expectations help people simplify their world, expectations also can steer attention away from disconfirming evidence. Systems with higher reliability restrain the temptation to simplify so they don't ignore sources of unexpected difficulties. They do so by systems of checks and balances, reviews and cultivating multiple perspectives. For example, at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, staff constantly remind themselves that they have not yet experienced or deduced all potential failures that could occur.

Sensitivity to Operations
People in systems with higher reliability pay close attention to operations. Weick, who has conducted extensive research on crews that fight wildfires, said the best predictor of a potential problem of entrapment and fatalities is when crews arrive 15, 20 or 30 minutes later than scheduled.

Cultivation of Resilience
Higher-reliability systems pay close attention to their capability to improvise and act without knowing in advance what will happen. They spend time improving their capacity to do a quick study, develop trust, engage in just-in-time learning and work with fragments of potential relevant past experience. "By increasing people's competency and broadening their training, you give them the skills to improvise," Sutcliffe said. Resilient groups adopt what she called an "attitude of wisdom"—an understanding that the more you know, the more you don't know—and avoid being overly confident or cautious.

Organize Around Expertise
Reliable systems let decisions "migrate" to those with the expertise to make them. Adherence to rigid hierarchies is loosened for a better matching of experience with problems. Failure to do so can be disastrous as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board noted in its report: "In highly uncertain circumstances, when lives were immediately at risk, management failed to defer to its engineers and failed to recognize that different data standards—qualitative, subjective and intuitive—and different processes—democratic rather than protocol and chain of command—were more appropriate."

Noreen Purcell, supervising forensic scientist at the State of New Mexico Department of Safety Crime Laboratory in Santa Fe, said of the Executive Education program, "I love it. They've given us some good management tools."

For Todd Whittard, supervising criminalist in the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the symposium was an opportunity to network with peers and gain a better grasp of management styles. "Learning about how high-reliability organizations are structured gives me an opportunity to think how I'll organize my unit in our laboratory for optimal results," said Whittard, who supervises the latent prints unit.

Carmella Strong, manager and DNA technical leader for the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Laboratory, said she appreciated learning more about her leadership and work style and how to incorporate her style with that of others in her lab to make it more productive.

For more about the Ross School Executive Education's custom and certificate programs, Michigan Speakers Bureau and coaching for executives, visit

For more information, contact:
Mary Jo Frank