- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

The broken windows of the organization

A neighbourhood with broken windows and graffiti on the walls says: look how easy it is to break a window here, and add graffiti too. It’s OK, come on, you too can do this! We all have experienced degrees of this somewhere. Littering is the same. If there is rubbish on the floor, you can throw rubbish here too…You may choose not to, but others may.

The way this problem has traditionally been tackled, in many places, is through punishment: we will find you and will fine you. Legions of law enforcement people would be needed. And it has been tried, not surprisingly, to minor affect.

At some point, a little Copernican revolution in behavioural terms took place. New York was one of these. Instead of deploying resources to find the perpetrators (and continue to find windows broken and graffiti on the walls and subways), the authorities diverted resource to fixing the windows and cleaning graffiti (notably on the New York subway). And they did this faster than the perpetrators could imagine.

In my trade, in behavioural terms, we would say they removed the reinforcement. Since any behaviour (good or bad) stays there because it is reinforced, removing the visibility of the action (the train that has been cleaned overnight, the wall that is now white, the broken window that has now been replaced, and, will continue to be fixed/cleaned faster than you can break or paint …) defeats the purpose of the perpetrators. It was a resounding success!

I have applied the concept of Broken Windows to organizations for many years. I have seen other people using it more recently. In our Reboot! Accelerator, I describe it like this: ‘Broken windows’ in an organization are things (processes, routines, ways of doing things…) which are progressively ‘going down-hill’ without too much attention. For example, decisions may be made but progressively not followed up, or action plans after meetings generated but more and more people don’t read them, or ‘requests for input’ sent but progressively less and less people bother to respond. They may not be ‘terrible problems’ by themselves, but their lack of follow up, or implementation, or response (turning a blind eye) ‘says’ that it is OK to break not just a window, but more windows. Soon, the whole building could be vandalised’

I’m sure you can create your own list. Well, imagine if you apply New York techniques. It should be clear what to do.