We’ve all seen the broken side of business. We’ve all worked shifts where nothing is working, everything is chaos and the employees are beyond caring. People start laughing, wandering aimlessly and shrugging their shoulders, until someone from management comes and shouts order back into them. Conversely, we’ve also all seen work atmospheres that seem unstoppable. Strong-willed individuals that will devote all their attention to any problem that arises, expecting the same from their fellow colleagues. In these environments, people fall in tow, working hard, proud to be involved in such a high-functioning machine. Broken Windows theory argues that the manner in which smaller problems are addressed reflects on the business as a whole, creating a culture that either sinks or thrives in the face of challenge. How can implementing it change the way your business operates?
Disrepair breeds disrepair. If left untended, a broken window invites further degradation. Before long, the entire house will be a wreck. The Broken Windows Theory was established by criminologists, stating that areas in a state of neglect necessarily attract crime. Implemented in New York under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the policy lead to a reduction in violent crime, despite only focusing on minor issues such as graffiti and subway gate-jumping. The theory has been translated into the world of business as an argument against neglect and carelessness. Those small problems that may seem insignificant in isolation inevitably grow and attract new problems until what appeared to be no more than a dent is now a gaping hole. Rectifying them quickly is of the utmost importance, not only for the immediate preventative benefit but for the precedent this sets to employees dealing with future situations.
What constitutes a broken window?
The question of what classifies as a broken window might vary from person to person. For Michael Levine, author of Broken Windows, Broken Business, a broken window is more than an apparent defect in infrastructure. An employee on their phone can be a broken window. A component of decor or attire that jars with the overall establishment is a broken window. In the online world, a broken window might be low-resolution photos on the Instagram page. It might be typos in the replies to customers. It could be a website that doesn’t display all the necessary, useful information in an easy-to-digest layout.
All in all, the theory is about habit-forming and time management. Those of us who’ve kept messy rooms know that once you clear some small item away, the effect is contagious. What before seemed like an impenetrable mass of responsibility has now been distilled into separate components, and the path to a clean, ordered room flickers into existence.
Messy people often struggle to understand clean people. They think, ‘How do they do it? Are they robots with no emotions, ruthlessly eradicating any trace of clutter?’. In reality, they are just in the habit of solving issues immediately. They don’t postpone. Oh, that stack of papers is starting to get out of hand – I’ll sort that out before it becomes home to an insect colony. This kind of mentality might be harder to apply to a business, where the problems that arise are often of a more complex nature. But, this is why, Levine argues, dealing with the small issues is paramount. Keeping a tidy workspace and digital profile, ensuring an obsessive attention to detail in day-to-day operations, fostering a similar culture in your employees — these basic achievements make tackling larger problems that much easier, unburdened as you are with peripheral, niggling issues.
When you’re in an immaculate room, you almost don’t want to touch anything for fear of upsetting the balance. You put your coat down delicately, you position your shoes symmetrically with the rest. In disorderly places, such care is abandoned. You toss your coat over the sofa, collapse into a chair and put your feet up. But shouldn’t the messier rooms promote cleanlier behaviour, as more work is required to restore a sense of order? What you’re doing is reacting to expectations — it is expected that the clean room stay clean, so you conform to that expectation. The messy room isn’t likely to get in order any time soon, so you relax into the ease of carelessness.
Employees react similarly to the expectations you place upon them. If no small ‘broken windows’ are visible, it is clear that none are permitted. You will respond to issues as befits this meticulous, attentive mindset.
Customers can often tell when a business is on its way out. The restaurant just doesn’t seem to care anymore, and it comes across in small, almost insignificant ways. Typos on the menu, a bored-looking server — issues that can befall any establishment. But as soon as they appear in conjunction, the consumer forms a deeper impression of the business as having lost its grip. Alan Jenkins of Quadrant2Design comments, ‘It’s often the small things that customers and clients pick up on. They see an employee on their phone, a lightbulb flickering, or any other mundane detail, and it sows a seed of doubt regarding the overall ethic of the business. We always scour the office before clients arrive to eradicate any potential uncertainty.’ Addressing these seemingly minor details might carry much larger benefits for your business, as habits form and a culture of diligence is established.