March 01, 2016

The Broken Window Theory

In 1982, James Q. Wilson authored an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled The Broken Window Theory. In it, he presented an idea which hypothesized that by tolerating small crimes, larger crimes would increase.

The premise was based on an example of breaking a few windows out of an abandoned building. When the broken windows were replaced quickly, vandals were less likely to break out more. However when they were left broken, more windows were broken until all of them were gone and many other forms of vandalism took place at the building.

These experiments were repeated in many settings with the most interesting one taking place in two different cities: New York City and Palo Alto, California. In the experiment, two identical cars were left abandoned with the hood left up.

Within an hour, the NYC car had the radiator and battery removed by a man with his wife and child in tow. Soon every part of value had been stripped from the car, all the glass was broken, and the interior was slashed.

Meanwhile in Palo Alto, the second car was not touched. Most would say that was not surprising given that this is one of the highest priced real estate markets in the country, as well as having a highly educated and wealthy population. So the researchers deliberately broke out one window to see if others in the area would follow.

Within 3 days of the window being broken, the Palo Alto car was nearly in as bad shape as the NYC car. Surprisingly, surveillance showed that the vandals destroying the car were well dressed people from the area. The broken window by the researchers had sent the message that the vandalism was acceptable.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani used The Broken Window Theory to greatly reduce crime when he was first elected mayor. Giuliani started arresting subway toll-hoppers - a practice that had been tolerated for years - en masse. He had graffiti cleaned from walls and broken windows replaced within 1 day.

Many people complained that the mayor was wasting his time and the city's resources on petty crime while big problems went unaddressed. However the mayor was right. Once people realized that even petty crime would not be tolerated, they started to behave differently. As the small things became important, the big things followed suit. Ultimately all crime dropped considerably under Giuliani.

How does this apply to us? It is that if we pay attention to the small things, the big things will follow. But when we fail to make the small things a priority, it opens the door for bigger and bigger issues to go undone.

As a team we need to pay strict attention to the little things. Did we reply to a client quickly? Were we late to a conference call? Did we miss a deadline to deliver work to a client that was promised?

How about your office? Do you treat it like it is important and respect your fellow teammates? Do you leave dishes in the kitchen sink assuming it is someone else's problem? How about running out of bathroom towels? Do you look for refills or just leave it for someone else?

One of my jobs is to help coach you to be the best you can be. Sometimes this will come in the form of teaching or guiding, but other times it will come in the form of exercising discipline. The best professional athletes can never reach their potential without the coach that leads them, makes them push past their own mental barriers, and provides the discipline to try harder.

Moving forward, we will be the team that cares about the smallest of issues. We will be the zero tolerance agency when it comes to being the best we can be. This does not mean we do not make mistakes; it means we do not make the same mistake twice. Fail fast, fail forward.

For those of you who want to be the best in your field and to be a part of something great, you will enjoy the ride. For those who do not seek to be great, you may find things to be uncomfortable. But life really starts where our comfort zone ends.