Fix Dem Broken Windows

It has been a decade since I have read the New York Times best-seller by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, where he talks about how little changes can have big impacts.

Amongst many ideas in the book, he brings up the broken window theory, “a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior” (sourced from Wikipedia). Gladwell draws out the example of how Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sparked a branding revolution of New York City. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s New York City’s 42nd Street was a notorious crime capital synonymous with broken drug needles, petty theft and prostitution, reflected in low fare B-flicks like Taking the Pelham 1,23 and Warriors. But in a relatively short period under Giuliani’s watch, it became a commercial epicenter attracting Disney and Virgin Records. The way Giuliani performed this magical turnaround was not through the brute calculation of adding more police, but focusing on the small stuff: petty crime, spray-can vandalism and college kids jumping subway turnstiles.

The idea is that if you permit a broken window or a piece of graffiti to go unchecked, it will become viral. Crime will proliferate. Accordingly then by preempting the low hanging cost-centers and eye sores of New York’s self-image, a positive tipping in social behavior can spread. Citizens would have more pride, invest to keep the culture clean, and do better work. Predators and felons would scurry like rodents, because they stick out too much in positively-lit environments.

As a turnaround change agent, we want to parachute into corporations and bulldoze the largest rocks and challenges. We overlook the tiny pebbles that can avalanche into a boulder of trouble. We let sewage that starts out harmlessly as a banana peel accumulate around us, on the shop floor, or on the sidewalk. But it is the quick surgical strikes that give us the wins and momentum to rise to the greater tasks in life, politics, science and the arts.

And that goes for emotional sewage—bad decisions, heartaches, and pain we carry daily. We can accumulate so much of it that it clutters our thinking and defeats our drive. We have no place to put it and are ashamed to show it. So it sits and stays and becomes a rotten landfill collecting flies of negativity and apathy.

If I tell myself, that part of me is broken and cannot be fixed until I do something major, I am susceptible to behaviors that can lead to further harm. I am so relaxed in my standards that I accept more broken windows.

Brand is perception and perception is reality. If your mirror is broken, you will perceive yourself and brand as broken. So set the standard in youself. Choreograph today’s self-image for tomorrow’s history. Fix those broken windows first and the community will follow.