How Broken Windows Can Kill a Business

I first encountered the Broken Window theory while reading The Tipping Point last year. It is one of those ideas I find intriguing because there is an inherent nonlinearity involved, and I am fascinated by nonlinearity (which is why I am fascinated with tipping points in general). Here is the main idea behind the theory:

"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

Some of you may say "Bah! That's just an excuse. There are good people and bad people in this world and the things they do aren't dependent on their local environment." In that case, you may want to look at some research.

The researchers did a test. They took a nice car, like a Jaguar, and parked it in the South Bronx in New York. They retreated back to a duck blind, and watched to see what would happen. They left the car parked there for something like four days, and nothing happened. It wasn't touched. So they went up and broke a little window on the side, and went back to the blind. In something like four hours, the car was turned upside down, torched, and stripped—the whole works.

They did more studies and developed a "Broken Window Theory." A window gets broken at an apartment building, but no one fixes it. It's left broken. Then something else gets broken. Maybe it's an accident, maybe not, but it isn't fixed either. Graffiti starts to appear. More and more damage accumulates. Very quickly you get an exponential ramp. The whole building decays. Tenants move out. Crime moves in. And you've lost the game. It's all over.

How can this affect your business? Well, the basic point here is that the environment matters. If you get "broken windows" at work, if left untreated they can lead to more and more, at which time you reach a tipping point that can destroy your company. Good people move on, complacent people stay.

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Buearacracy. Whining. Complacency. Disengagement. Lying. Cheating. All these things, and many many more, can be broken windows in your company. The minute you condone a little bit of negative behavior, and let it fester, you are on track to start seeing more and more of it. One person that doesn't care much about a project can be enough to make everyone else care a little less too. The next thing you know you are behind schedule and over budget. And no one really cares.

How do you fight broken windows? Vigilance. You have to stay plugged in. As a manager, you can never retreat to your office and hope for the best. You need to be involved with your people. You need to spend part of your time in the trenches with them, getting rid of all the stupid obstacles that stop them from doing their work effectively. You need to build teams that notice and fix broken windows on their own.

It is very easy to let these things sit. We tend to think that it's just a little problem, we will fix it later. We tend to think it won't get any worse. But it can, and it often does. Do you want to build a great team? Do you want to do good work? Do you want to be part of a great company? Start by fixing the broken windows. Watch the small problems with a vigilant eye, and you may never have to face the really big ones.