Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point popularized the “Broken Windows Theory” with a story about New York City in the 1990s. Crime was rampant, but the police force did not have the budget or other resources they felt necessary to address the problem. Parts of the city looked like war zones, bombed and burned out, and New York became notoriously unsafe for citizens and tourists alike. Mayor Rudi Giuliani decided it was time to clean up the streets – literally. He instituted a zero tolerance policy on petty crimes such as subway fare dodging, graffiti, and public urination with the aim of creating a trickle-up effect that would reduce more serious crimes.
It worked: violent crime declined by more than 56% by the end of the 90s.
Does this concept apply to your business? It’s easy to find out. Over just one week, closely observe how your team functions. Did all the meetings start on time and have agendas? Was everyone fully prepared? Did each “to do” list item get completed? Were reports submitted on time?
If all went according to plan, then the broken windows theory is not going to change your business. On the other hand, if things are starting to slide, you may be able to address it by fixing the petty misdemeanors being perpetrated by your team.
Building the Chain to Success
Maybe your informal poll will uncover the impression that everything is sloppy. Sometimes company leaders feel overwhelmed just like Giuliani did when he took office in 1993. Getting a few safety incident reports in a row, chronically hitting the revenue targets but never the profit ones, always having a different key player off sick…it can feel like you’ll never fire on all cylinders again. When all else fails, be like Jerry Seinfeld.
When he was just starting out on the comic circuit he knew the only way to become great was to write material every day. But that took a lot of creativity and focus when there were many other priorities competing for his time. Staying motivated was tough. His solution was to buy a calendar and a pen. Each day he wrote material, he’d add an “X” to the calendar to lengthen the chain of X’s. As the chain grew longer, so too did his reluctance to break that chain.
He’s not the only person who has thought of this, of course. Alcoholics Anonymous gives out chips to mark people’s consecutive days of sobriety. Almost every production company’s floor has a “Number of Days without Safety Incident” counter posted prominently. Try it out in your company. How many consecutive weeks can your team start a meeting on time or hit a productivity target?
Start Your Company Chain This Week
Decide on an initiative that affects all aspects of the company. It can come from your strategic or business planning sessions, discussions with staff, or something else that has been on your mind. Now consider what you can do individually to make progress towards that initiative. Some examples include:
Grow Sales: Call one different client a day
Improve Efficiencies: Hold daily huddles
Increase Employee Retention: Have a meaningful conversation with an employee every day
Once you decide on something, track it every day. Printed paper calendars work well, but can be difficult for those always on the go.
Communicate the initiative and challenge your managers and their direct reports to develop habits that support it. Managers should discuss these habits while conducting meetings, because further reinforcement happens during company addresses and other opportunities that arise. The chains can also be made public so everyone sees the progress, as with the consecutive incident-free days example.
Keeping the Momentum
Continue to reinforce the habit and engrain it in the company culture. It takes approximately 65 days for new habits to take hold, but the momentum can be powerful once they do. What’s more, the spillover effect from these habitual improvements yields results in other areas.
A clean office kitchen may seem like an inconsequential thing, but having a clean physical space can increase employee pride in the company and increase productivity. This impacts profit and increases the resources available to invest in people and systems. Employees who see the effects of their efforts will become more motivated, and the change initiative will continue to snowball, improving business efficiency.