Shine on you crazy windows

“What do you want?” Goetz asked.
“Give me five dollars,” Canty replied.
Goetz looked up and, as he would say later, saw that Canty’s “eyes were shiny, and he was enjoying himself……Goetz reached into his pocket and pulled out a chrome-plated five-shot Smith and Wesson .38, firing at each of the four youths in turn.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his fine book ‘The Tipping Point‘ explains the Power of Context’  “is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We’re exquisitely sensitive to them.” Human behavior owes a lot to the context or situation, rather than, say, personality or genetic makeup. And that explains a lot in provoking Goetz, a decent New Yorker, shoot four youths in a graffiti ridden, littered subway train in one cold december day in New York.

Power of context is best summed up by the Broken Windows theory. Gladwell writes 

“Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same. …The Power of Context is an environmental argument. It says that behavior is a function of social context….The Power of Context says that you don’t have to solve big problems to solve crime. You can prevent crimes just by scrubbing off graffiti and arresting fare beaters…Once you understand that context matters, however, that specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as Tipping points …..”

Broken Windows theory is the brainchild of criminologist James Q.Wilson and George L.Kelling, and in their own words:

“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. (It has always been fun.)”

Kelling was later hired by New York Transit Authority, who together with subway director David Gunn cleaned up the graffiti. Later William Bratton, hired as transit police head, another disciple of Broken Windows, cracked down upon farebeating. All these attributed in bringing down New York crime radically during the mid-80s.

In order to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change people’s behavior, Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen conducted experiments to, say, validate Broken Windows theory.

His group’s first study was conducted in an alley that is frequently used to park bicycles. ..the researchers created two conditions: one of order and the other of disorder. In the former, the walls of the alley were freshly painted; in the latter, they were tagged with graffiti ….In both states a large sign prohibiting graffiti was put up, so that it would not be missed by anyone who came to collect a bicycle. All the bikes then had a flyer promoting a non-existent sports shop attached to their handlebars. This needed to be removed before a bicycle could be ridden. When owners returned, their behaviour was secretly observed. There were no rubbish bins in the alley, so a cyclist had three choices. He could take the flyer with him, hang it on another bicycle (which the researchers counted as littering) or throw it to the floor. When the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean.

Do the Broken Windows theory and Power of Context apply to an organization? Can we radically improve the organizational environment to foster professional behavior? Hoarding information, dirty office politics, taking undeserving credit, favouritism, all can be broken windows. Bringing right culture is a lot of fixing broken windows.

Software development is notoriously known for falling quickly into tar pit.

In the book The Pragmatic Programmer, Andrew Hunt and David Thomas look into Broken Windows in software developments:

“There are many factors that can contribute to software rot. The most important one seems to be the psychology, or culture, at work on a project. Even if you are a team of one, your project’s psychology can be a very delicate thing. Despite the best laid plans and the best people, a project can still experience ruin and decay during its lifetime. Yet there are other projects that, despite enormous difficulties and constant setbacks, successfully fight nature’s tendency toward disorder and manage to come out pretty well.”

Bad design, wrong decisions or poor code can be broken windows, which warrants fixing as soon as they are discovered. Agile development framework like Scrum is good in the way that the underlying framework makes fixing broken windows highly desirable. High order of transparency and rapid feedback mechanism with continuous integration, pair programming, daily scrums all encourage fixing broken windows.

Let the windows shine.

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