In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist had two cars to spare and decided to conduct a small experiment. He arranged to have one parked with its hood up, open doors, without license plates, on a street in the Bronx, NY - a place that was poor, dangerous, and full of crime. The other one was parked on a street in Palo Alto, California, like any other normal car, with its hood down and license plates intact. It looked like it belonged to somebody.
The car in the Bronx was attacked by vandals within 10 minutes. After three days there was nothing of value in the car and it was ultimately wrecked totally. While the car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo got bored and decided to intervene. He smashed a window of it with a sledgehammer to add some fun. Thus, the car went from being in perfect condition to showing signs of abuse and neglect. A few hours later, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Just like the first one.
Broken Windows as a theory was developed by sociologists James Wilson and George Kelling in the 1980s.
Broken Windows Theory states that when low level crimes like vandalism (e.g., breaking windows of cars and buildings) are ignored, larger and more serious crimes start to happen soon.
Broken windows left unrepaired leads to breaking of the rest of windows as well. This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as in bad ones. Window-breaking does not occur as some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by good hearted window-lovers. Rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares about it, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. In the above example from 1969, breaking the windows of the second car had primed the people in Palo Alto that nobody cares about it, so why should they!
Broken windows set a new norm of behaviour for the community, which is slightly closer to the criminal or anti-social behaviour, and people adjust their normal behaviour accordingly. As the level of normalcy goes down, it sets a vicious cycle in motion that gradually causes a neighbourhood to become more and more run-down and dangerous.
Say you’re smoking a cigarette on the side walk. You finish the cigarette. Where do you throw the stub? If you’re standing on a clean side walk with no signs of litter, it’s likely you’ll wait to throw the stub in the next trash can.
However, if the street is littered with cigarettes, you won’t make an effort to try to find a trash can. You’ll just throw it on the ground with all the others. Since it’s already littered, what difference would your one cigarette stub make.
What the Broken Windows Theory means is simple: if in a building a broken window is not fixed soon, immediately other windows will end up being destroyed by vandals. Why? Because the message which is being transmitted is: here nobody cares about this; this is abandoned.
Although though littering streets with cigarette stubs isn’t a criminal behaviour, the ethos is similar to breaking windows of abandoned cars and buildings. It sets a new standard where such activities are tolerated.
In 1993, a series of policies based on the Broken Windows Theory were enacted that emphasised addressing crimes that negatively affect quality of life. All kinds of petty crimes like subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, and graffiti were dealt with very seriously. According to a 2001 study of crime trends, rates of both petty and serious crime fell significantly after that. Furthermore, crime continued to decline for the following ten years.
Like neighbourhoods and societies, businesses, work cultures, and products can have broken windows too. When short-term solutions or quick and dirty fixes build up in your culture, these act like vandalism and neglect in a neighbourhood. A “We tolerate bullshit” norm is set and the vicious cycle slowly begins without us knowing.
If the design of a product is already ugly and hard to work with, adding one more quick and dirty feature without putting any thought in it feels like less of a big deal. You optimise for speed and efficiency over quality. And so without ever consciously making a decision to do so, you lower your standards even further.
This doesn’t only affect employees; it’s almost certainly affects you, the leader too. You’re becoming more willing to build up technical and business debt, and less likely to prioritise paying it off. You create a culture of ineptitude. You started off tolerating business hacks, broken codes, small technical incompetencies, and now you’ve got epidemic car theft and are on the path to gang warfare.
The solution to a product, business, or a culture in this situation is the same as for a neighbourhood. You take a break and fix the windows that are already broken. You also have to make it a point that you don’t let any broken windows go unprepared in the future. If you yourself let your business or product have broken windows, don’t expect others not to throw stones at it.