Broken Windows

I first heard about broken windows in Paul Graham’s book Hackers and Painters. Broken windows was originally a criminology theory along the lines that obvious neglect and disorder breeds more neglect and disorder. We’ve all seen abandoned buildings full of broken windows. They didn’t start out that way. Most people would be reluctant to throw the stone that breaks the first window. But once one or two are broken, and not replaced, that apparent apathy makes it easier to continue the trend. It slowly erodes that “barrier to entry”. People who wouldn’t ordinarily do something like that possibly consider it because, after all, it’s obvious that nobody cares. Before you know it, all the windows are broken.

Executive Manor apartment building sign

The photo above was taken over two years ago but that building still looked the same when I ran by this morning. It’s an apartment complex near my home and I pass by it regularly. Every time I do, I think of broken windows. It’s not exactly the same idea but I think it’s pretty close.

It’s possible that the apartments inside are amazing and that the building is otherwise well kept. Other than the sign, the outside of the building makes it difficult to tell either way. It’s pretty nondescript; not very fancy but not in obvious disrepair either. Except for the sign.

But I think that sign is symbolic. It’s the face the world sees. It’s that building’s “brand”. And it’s not very inviting. If the management company is sloppy and lazy about maintaining that, I can’t imagine how they conduct the rest of their business. Apartments in that building could rival those in Trump Tower. But I wonder how many people, like me, will never walk in the door and find out. Just because of the message that sign sends. I don’t know how much it would cost to repair it but I can’t imagine it’s more than the negative impression it makes on everyone who passes by every hour of every day.

I think we all have broken windows in our personal and professional lives. Little things we could do differently that have the potential to make big differences for us. And the way people perceive us. I know I can work on being more responsive to email and phone calls from potential clients. It probably sends the message that I’m a flake or that I don’t care about their business. In reality, as a solo employee, I sometimes get busy working on a current project and don’t spend as much time thinking about or planning for the next one. But that’s a lame excuse and I need to be better about it.

What are the broken windows in your life? Is there anything you’re doing, or not doing, that sends a message not consistent with how you’d like to be thought of? What can you do about it?