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Fix the Small Problems First

15/03/2010

Brokenwindows My home desk is a mess. When I look around me I see books, magazines, invoices, glasses, a hideous little white Christmas tree from three months ago, speakers, external hard drives, two calculators, a scanner, a printer, post-it notes, medicines, business cards, pencils, pens, color markers, a ruler, batteries, and there’s even an acorn (from Kiev) and a chestnut (from Helsinki). My desk at the office looks more or less the same, except for the acorn and the chestnut. And the messier my desk is, the messier it gets. After all, with a loaded desktop nobody will notice when I throw another pinecone on it.

In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell described how the New York police was able to reduce crime rates in the city by relentlessly targeting small offenses, like graffiti on walls, subway fare evasion, and public drinking. The idea of “zero tolerance” was based on the Broken Windows theory, which says that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behavior trigger more disorderly and criminal behavior, thus causing the behavior to spread. By punishing all the little ways in which people make a mess of their environment, and cleaning things up frequently, it is believed that more serious crimes can be prevented.

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. "Broken Windows" – James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling

A number of scholars have criticized the Broken Windows theory. They have found issues with correlation and causality, which may have led to fallacies in case studies like the famous New York city crime rate example. However, there is sufficient evidence that at least the principle behind the Broken Windows theory is sound. The theory is also a logical extension of a more generic idea, called Lewin’s Equation:

B = f(P,E)

This equation, developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin, states that behavior is a function of the person and his or her environment. Or in other words, people tend to adapt their behavior to the environment that they live in.

Given that people also copy each other’s norms and behaviors (memetics), and that therefore bad behavior is likely to lead to more bad behavior (positive feedback loop), it is easy to see how all these concepts combined automatically lead to the Broken Windows theory.

But what can we learn from this? In my opinion, two things:

  1. Big problems often start as a small problems, that weren’t nipped in the bud when they were still manageable;
  2. If a problem is too big to handle, then target another related but smaller problem.

Address the small problems first, and you'll have less work when addressing the big ones.

(photo: Shoes on Wires)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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This article is written by on in Practices & Discipline. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • http://www.thoughtclusters.com Krish

    Just so you know, the Broken Windows example in Malcolm Gladwell’s book has been disputed by the Freakonomics authors, where they suggest that the actual cause is legal abortion, and point to the reduced crime rates in cities all over the United States, not just in NYC.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/alekdavisblogspotcom Alek

    I was hoping for a tip on maintaining neat and orderly desks. :-)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0120a6924fad970c twitter.com/mdubakov

    >>Address the small problems first, and you’ll have less work when addressing the big ones.
    I disagree. You can fix a load of small problems, but with a little value. And you can fix one high priority problem with huge economic impact (if we speak about product development, for example). It is better to attack high priority problems first.

  • http://blog.brodzinski.com Pawel Brodzinski

    I’d say we should fix the most important problems first, no matter if they’re small or big but I agree the fact something doesn’t hurt us at the moment automatically means it is OK to do nothing about the issue.
    Small problems become big problems (http://blog.brodzinski.com/2007/03/solve-small-problems.html) and then they kick us in our butts hard.
    I try to look at the potential of the problem. If it has potential to become big, ugly and painful I try to fix it – the earlier the better.