One of the best-known concepts in the study of criminology is the Broken Windows Theory. This approach to fighting crime, first articulated by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in a 1982 article in The Atlantic Monthly, asserts that there is a linkage between social order and crime that can be explained by the parable of the broken window.
Kelling and Wilson based their arguments partly on research carried out by Philip Zombardo, a Stanford psychologist who in 1969 parked abandoned cars in the Bronx, New York, and Palo Alto, California, to record what would happen to the vehicles. The car left in the Bronx suffered initial damage and parts theft within ten minutes and, over the course of time, suffered significant destruction at the hands of the neighborhood residents. The car in Palo Alto sat intact for a week but once Zombardo smashed one of its windows with a sledgehammer, the area residents soon began to attack the car and the vehicle ended up suffering substantial damage.
Zombardo’s research suggested that disorder breeds more disorder. Kelling and Wilson took Zombardo’s findings and added the results of their own research in crime prevention in Newark, New Jersey, in which they studied the results of a community policing effort that focused on officer foot patrols instead of car patrols. The authors noticed the different effects on public order attributable to the engagement of the foot patrol officers with the community, as officers would tightly enforce a set of simple rules aimed at maintaining a sense of decorum, keeping an eye on strangers versus regular community members, and targeting vagrancy and other anti-community behavior.
Intuitively, one would think that limited public safety resources should be devoted to preventing or solving major crimes, such as burglary, assault, or murder, as these do the most damage to the individuals involved. From a cost/benefit analysis, a petty street crime that results in the loss of a few dollars from the wallet of a victim pales in comparison to a home invasion resulting in the injury of a citizen. As such, the police should focus on the “big” crimes and not waste their time worrying about an abandoned lot or a vagrant drinking in an alley. The Broken Windows Theory, contrarily, postulates that a single broken window in a building, if not repaired quickly, soon leads to other broken windows and, ultimately, to decay in the overall social order in an area.
According to Kelling and Wilson, the lesson for law enforcement and for community-minded individuals is to respond quickly to even the smallest signs of disorder (abandoned properties, uncollected trash, vagrancy, gang-like rowdy behavior) lest their neighborhood descend from a “stable” place into an “inhospitable and frightening jungle.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani notably applied the Broken Windows Theory during his tenure, enforcing laws against the squeegee men and panhandlers who were at one time ubiquitous in the city. As former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton puts it, the objective is to “[s]top the behavior when it’s small, stop the cancer when it’s small.”
Although the validity of the Broken Windows Theory is hotly debated (as is the case with almost any leading theory in sociology and political science), there is an interesting ramification to consider for the study of innovation. Like the police officers focused on addressing the major crimes, we as innovation practitioners have a tendency to focus our efforts on solving huge problems facing our enterprises. We strive to find a big idea to disrupt our industry or a bold, transformational move that leads to a dramatic rethinking of how we operate. While these objectives are indeed necessary and desirable for an innovation program, the Broken Windows Theory suggests that we should focus on more than just these larger-scale objectives.
We should scan the area for smaller innovations (often referred to as low-hanging fruit orq uick wins) that can demonstrate results even though they are not transformational or disruptive. For example, an innovation team could focus some of its resources on a big new product that will transform the industry, but not lose sight of the possibility that in the course of that work the team could identify a small improvement to be made to an existing product that would lead to more sales for the enterprise.
Likewise, a team could stumble across a small process change to drive greater operational efficiencies in the course of working on a major initiative, such as implementing a new agile development methodology.
In addition to providing us with quick wins and positive momentum for our efforts, by fixing smaller problems we also reduce the likelihood that we spend so much time focusing on a major play that, by the time we arrive at a breakthrough, the enterprise has taken a turn for the worse and does not have the resources to invest in our proposed solution. The small victories can also create a culture of innovation success in our enterprise, increasing the chances that our larger scale efforts will be successful and spawning new ideas and creativity. As we are walking the innovation sidewalk, we should remember to take the time to repair any broken windows we see lest our overall efforts struggle to gain traction.
Another theory that leverages the concept of the broken window is Frederic Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. Bastiat, one of the leading thinkers in the Austrian School of economics, introduced the Broken Window Fallacy, also known as the Glazier’s Fallacy, in his influential 1850 essay That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen. The Glazier’s Fallacy tells the story of the shopkeeper whose son accidentally breaks one of the windows in his store. The shopkeeper hires the local glazier to repair his window and pays him a fee of six francs for the new window. The glazier is pleased as a result of the new revenue opportunity, which Bastiat refers to as “that which is seen.” At first glance, the event of the broken window seems to be a net economic benefit to the village, as the glazier who was previously idle now has a task to perform and is compensated for that task.
However, what Bastiat identifies as “that which is unseen” is the fact that the shopkeeper could have spent those six francs on something else, so the economic benefit that could have flowed to someone else in the village (perhaps the baker or butcher) does not occur and those other individuals are worse off than before the window was broken. The Broken Window Fallacy demonstrates the concept of opportunity cost, which states that for every action taken, one must consider the actions not taken as well. Time spent performing activity “A” must be analyzed not just in terms of what it means for activity “A” but also what it means for time not spent performing activity “B.”
In the field of innovation, the juxtaposition of these two theories referencing broken windows presents an interesting paradox. The Broken Windows Theory suggests that innovation practitioners should not lose sight of smaller scale innovation efforts because those can provide intrinsic value, whereas the Broken Window Fallacy suggests that the time spent on these smaller efforts ultimately means less time spent on the larger, transformational innovation initiatives that could reap huge gains for our enterprises.
A potential solution to this innovation paradox could lie in mimicking the behavior of the police officers referenced in the Broken Windows Theory while considering the opportunity cost implications of the Broken Window Fallacy. A police force that spends all of its time focusing on tracking down purveyors of graffiti or vagrancy would create an environment where those who commit major crimes feel emboldened to commit more due to their lack of prosecution. Conversely, a police force that focused only on major crimes and let vandals and petty criminals run rampant would create a society that is unlivable that could ultimately devolve into more serious criminal activity.
Perhaps the lesson for innovators is to think of our enterprises as a police officer would to his or her “beat” or local neighborhood. When we start on an endeavor, such as working with a new client or new business unit within an enterprise, we should take a quick scan of the innovation culture of the organization and determine if we are looking at the equivalent of a neighborhood with broken windows and graffiti or an area with clean streets and a solid social contract. If we spot the former (social detritus), we should focus more of our innovation efforts on smaller scale initiative that could result in quick wins, while keeping an eye on larger scale future initiatives that are truly transformational. If we spot the latter (social order), then we may want to tilt the scale towards the big innovation plays that could be truly disruptive. There will always need to be a balance between the two, but as we turn the knob depending on what we encounter in our daily innovation work, we should keep in mind the lessons of the broken windows.
Sources: George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety,” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1982). David Feith, “William Bratton: The Real Cures for Gun Violence,” Wall Street Journal (January 18, 2013). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window. image credit: magnifying & shaddered dreams image from bigstock
Wait! Before you go.
Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:
- Daily — RSS Feed — Email — Twitter — Facebook — Linkedin Today
- Weekly — Email Newsletter — Free Magazine — Linkedin Group
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.