Broken Window Theory:
From Police Work to Project Management

The Broken Window Theory (BWT), as explained by Malcom Gladwell (2000), comes from police work. If a window is broken in a neighborhood, the BWT compels owners to fix it quickly and, therefore, dispel the message that the neighborhood is an easy mark for burglars and vandals. When this theory is practiced, graffiti is quickly removed and litter is immediately cleaned up, so as not to invite graffiti and littering. For example, the government policy in Valparaiso, Indiana is to clean up graffiti within 24 hours of its discovery.  

Think about implementing the BWT during your next project planning and management effort. Experience suggests that application of the theory enhances project success and contributes to individual and team growth. Involve team members in the preparation of the project plan, partly to benefit from their insight and partly to get them to buy into the project plan.

Now the project is underway. Assume that, early in the project, you or I ask a team member for a written monthly project report and we do not receive what we wanted when we wanted it. Then, in accordance with the BWT, immediately and politely insist that it be done. Our action seeks to establish a positive pattern. College football coach Vince Dooley put it this way: “Keep the rules to a minimum and enforce the ones you have.”

Use the same approach with those we serve, whether we are in the private, public, academic, or volunteer sector. As an example, assume that early in a project, our client, owner, or stakeholder promises to provide some information by a certain date and fails to do so. The let’s immediately contact him or her and diplomatically determine the status of the information. Set high expectations from the get-go.

The preceding two example applications of the BWT illustrate how it can establish a high-expectations atmosphere within our project and, if widely practiced, within our organization. Of course, as project or other manager, we must exemplify those high expectations by consistently doing what we say we will do.

In the spirit of nipping behavioral problems in the bud, music critic Harold Schonberg offers this advice which is applicable to any of us as a manager of a portion of a project, an entire project, or an organization. “Anybody who gets away with something will come back to get away with a little bit more.”

Therefore, as difficult as it may initially be, you or I as project or other manager should “deal swiftly and consistently with out-of-bounds or inappropriate behavior” (Wahby 2008).

  • Why? Because essentially everyone on our team knows about out-of-bounds or inappropriate behavior; we may be the last to know.
  • And, eventually everyone on our team will know what we did, or did not do, about it. Our credibility is on the line.

As noted by business consultant Peter Drucker, “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.” The BWT can help us meet our responsibilities and help others be even more responsible.

References

Gladwell, M. 2000. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Little, Brown, and Company, New York, NY.

Wahby, D. M. 2008. “Keeping People,” CE NEWS, October, p. 28.

Closing thought: If you are interested in high expectations-high support education and training, either on-site or via webinars, please contact me at stuwalesh@comcast.net or call me at 219-464-1704. Examples of clients served and services provided are available here.

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