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« Plenty to go around | Main | Broken Windows Theory of Management – Part 2 »

Broken Windows Theory of Management – Part 1

In 1982 a crime fighting strategy called Broken Windows gained prominence when criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson published a lengthy article on the subject in The Atlantic Monthly. Their theory holds that people are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods that appear unwatched and uncared for by residents and local authorities. Criminals, Kelling said recently, are ''emboldened by the lack of social control."

The crux of Wilson and Kelling's argument was that perceptions affect reality-that the appearance of disorder begets actual disorder-and that any visual cues that a neighborhood lacks social control can make a neighborhood a breeding ground for serious crime. As Kelling and Wilson put it in The Atlantic, ''one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

Kelling and Wilson argued the way to fight serious crime was to not to wait for assaults and murders and then catch the bad guys, but to repair the first broken window-literally and metaphorically.  Help stop the bad guys from becoming bad guys in the first place.

Fast forward to 1993 when Rudolph Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York City on a quality of life platform… a platform of reducing crime throughout the city.  If you recall those days in NYC, many were considering the city basically ungovernable and the rampant crime pretty much unsolvable… it was just the way it was.  At that time, NYC was averaging five murders a day (1800-2200 murders a year between 1989 and 1993) and 10,000 felonies a week. Property crimes had essentially been decriminalized, with car owners displaying flags of surrender such as “radio already stolen” to prevent further break-ins. Roving packs of thugs ruled the streets and subways. 


Instead Giuliani and his police chiefs implemented this policing strategy, Broken Windows.  It had already been tried with considerable success in Boston and other cities. Guess what?  Rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly and continued to decline for the next 10 years.  On Giuliani's watch, overall violent crime was cut in half and the murder rate went down a stunning 70 percent. 


At its base Broken Windows is an epidemic theory of crime… that crime is contagious… it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community.  Now most of you are probably thinking, what the heck does this broken windows thing have to do with my company?  I knew I should start blocking those dang emails! ;-)


Well I believe you can have a Broken Windows Theory of Management.  The same processes are occurring in your company each and every day… not crime but interactions… people choosing to act in this way or that… that behavior, all behaviors, not just crime, are a function of social context.  Broken windows says that what really matters is the small things.  You don’t have to solve all the big problems… often solving the little problems make the big ones disappear… to quickly fix problems when they first occur.


Not to get too psychological on you but what we consider our inner states – our emotions, our perceptions, how we feel about this person or this job or this company – are the result of our outer circumstances.  The power of situation and context is much more than most of us imagine.  And we are all tuned much more into personal cues, i.e. how someone behaves, how they act or how tense they are, than contextual cues, i.e. what someone actually says. 

We are powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personalities of those around us.  We are acutely sensitive to even the smallest details of everyday life… whether we know it or not… and in about 99.9% of the cases, we don’t know about it… but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t happening.

We often think people are who they are.  That their character is something which is struck in stone.  This isn’t the case.   People can radically transform their beliefs and behavior.

So again, how the heck does this have anything to do with my business?!  It has everything to do with your business… because rather than being a passive player you can consciously work to manage this… you can consciously work to shape it.  Let’s abandon “normal” thinking and leap outside the everyday… think about it, you can start and manage honesty epidemics… productivity epidemics… giving a damn epidemics… things that once they take hold, can and will profoundly alter the very foundation of your business… forever.

Next post – more on Broken Windows


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