I was introduced to the Broken Windows Theory in an article which applies this theory to small details in design that affect our motivation to work on a product.
The Broken Windows Theory is a criminological theory that states that preventing small crimes like vandalism helps to maintain an atmosphere of order, which prevents more serious crimes from happening. Basically it means that the environment we are in has a significant effect on our behaviour.
The main application of this theory is to prevent crimes, and it has been used in many places in the United States as well as in other countries such as the Netherlands.
But the Broken Windows Theory also applies to human behaviour in everyday routines. If your kitchen is a mess, you won’t care about making more mess. But if it is perfectly clean, you will be really careful to not mess it up. Now that you’re aware of this concept, you will likely realize there are many other applications (you’re welcome! I hope I didn’t activate your OCD).
In working with different startup teams, I’ve noticed a pattern that made me think of another application for the Broken Windows Theory: teams using poorly made products are more likely to produce mediocre work.
I’m extremely picky about the products I choose (for personal use or for our team) and I have discarded products that in their core functionality are wonderful, but in the overall experience they were all broken windows. They all had something that made me feel it was a product I wouldn’t have shipped myself. Without even realizing it, I was seeking to avoid having these broken windows impact my own work.
The Broken Windows Theory is based on perception of our environment. Our bodies are extremely focused on efficiency, but sometimes at the cost of changing our perception. Take the case of smells: to avoid exhausting the nervous system with constant stimulus, after a while our nose stops sending signals to the brain about intense smells. As a result, we get used to bad smells.
The same way people can get used to bad smells, your team could get used to bad products. Then, due to the Broken Windows Theory, your product will be a reflection of the environment and those broken windows could lead to major implementation crimes!
Essentially, the products your team uses every day are defining your own product quality standards. If you are exposing your team to an atmosphere of low standards with bad-quality products (such as those used for task tracking, project management, sales, etc.), they will create products equally as bad.
The good news is that the exact opposite will happen if you give your team amazing tools. If you fix the broken windows, the environment will be one of high quality and your team will be constantly challenged to improve their production to meet the high standards of the tools they use every day.
So to make your team and your products better, fix your broken windows by using amazing tools no matter what they cost. It is an investment in your quality standards.