Broken Window Cultures

by Sandy Nelson on March 6, 2012

The passing last week in Massachusetts of the social scientist, James Q. Wilson, has given rise to a spate of articles and opinion pieces written from diverse political perspectives in journals and on web sites as varied the Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast, Huffington Post, LA and NY Times.

Writing in today’s New York Times, “The Rediscovery of Character”, David Brooks quotes Mr. Wilson thusly, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

In its obituary for Mr. Wilson, the Times paraphrases Mr. Wilson and his co-author, George L. Kelling, of the renown March 1982 Atlantic piece, “Broken Windows”, “residents’ perceptions of the safety of their neighborhood is based not on whether there is a high rate of crime, but on whether the neighborhood appears to be well tended — that is, whether its residents hold it in mutual regard, uphold the locally accepted obligations of civility, and outwardly disdain the flouting of those obligations.”

And, “when a window is broken and someone fixes it, that is a sign that disorder will not be tolerated. But “one unrepaired broken window,” they wrote, “is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

In the decades since publication of “Broken Windows”, vigorous disagreement related to the validity of Messieurs Wilson and Keller’s hypothesis has filled many pages of respectable journalism. Yet, the arguments in favor hold true to me in another domain of focus—high performance cultures.

In our work in building high performance cultures, we routinely encounter organizations  seeking help in shifting comfortable, historically successful but now challenged, legacy cultures to high performance status. One of the first things we look for in these situations is “broken windows”.

Are there team members (“broken windows”) who consistently place themselves outside the professed system of beliefs, world view, orientation, standards and patterns of behavior that comprise the acceptable norms of the culture? If so, what is the time frame typically associated with tolerance for the misalignment and lack of commitment to change that these individuals represent?

In other words, does the culture define and enforce limits on acceptable behavior in a timely manner? Or, are “broken windows” allowed to go unattended over extended periods of time? These are essential questions.

High performance cultures and teams have limited tolerance for behaviors that are inconsistent with cultural standards. In those cultures and teams that consistently perform at peak, “broken windows” are identified and “repaired” in real time.

This is not to say that individual idiosyncrasies are not welcomed or tolerated. Highly talented and accomplished people are quite often markedly idiosyncratic. But, even the most distinctive characters in high performance cultures choose to align with core standards and patterns of behavior in the service of advancing the goals of the organization.

For instance, reportedly as idiosyncratic as they come, Steve Jobs established and led culture built around cross-functional collaboration and the highest standards of product design, quality and customer service. I’ve heard many anecdotes of difficult encounters and unfortunate exchanges involving him, but personally have never heard anyone with solid grounding say that Steve placed his personal agenda ahead of Apple’s.

On the other hand, consider the business unit leader who adamantly claims to be aligned with cultural change and standards, but whose behavior consistently reveals a deep-seated commitment to doing things as she always has. For example, consider the executive who publicly professes a commitment to driving decision making down to the lowest level possible (a core tenet of high performance), yet who consistently insists on taking the lead in every single decision made.

Sustainable success at building a high performance culture is virtually impossible when “broken windows” are tolerated. Even if the individual involved is the most talented, nicest member of the team. Even when you wonder how in the world you would ever replace their knowledge, skills and bottom line contributions. Even when they have a long history within the organization, are often its public face and seemingly hold the key to an essential component of performance.

Building a high performance culture is not easy. It takes courage, discipline and persistence. Above all, it requires the willingness and audacity to repair “broken windows” today.

Sandy Nelson

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