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Fixing Broken Windows (not the Microsoft kind)

A few weeks ago there was an article in an Atlanta newspaper about George Kelling, the author of the book, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. Dr. Kelling has been called “the man who helped Rudy Giuliani turn around New York City” by refocusing some of the city’s priorities. As I was reading the article about Kelling, it struck me that a lot of the same principles apply to an IT organization.

Kelling’s studies have shown that crime goes down in areas of the city where there is a police foot patrol. That seems like a no-brainer, but what’s not so obvious is that the decrease in crime comes from two things:

  1. A better relationship between the police force and the community, and
  2. Increased enforcement of laws for minor crimes like peddling, begging, graffiti, vagrancy, etc.

Better Relationship
The better relationship is probably the more important of the two factors. Putting police officers on the street personalizes the officers to the members of the community, and makes them approachable. When people interact regularly with another group on a person-to-person basis, they are more likely to understand each other’s point of view. When they recognize common goals, they’re more likely to take joint responsibility for achieving those goals, and they’re more likely to work together to achieve them.

Where foot patrols are used, the members of the community begin to take ownership of the crime problems, and they don’t just expect the police to deal with the crime by themselves. The community and the police force work together to make the city a better place.

Increased Enforcement of Laws Against Minor Crimes
The second cause of the drop in crime is increased enforcement of laws against minor crimes. What is surprising is that the enforcement of laws against minor crimes leads to a reduction in the number of major crimes. It turns out that there is a domino effect here. For example, if the sidewalk in front of a store becomes an annoyance to customers due to panhandling, graffiti or vagrancy, then the customers will go elsewhere to shop, and the store will eventually close and be replaced with a less legitimate business. Minor crime areas tend to evolve into areas for drug dealing, and the crime in that vicinity escalates. Stopping the minor crime changes a downward spiral of decay into an upward spiral of improvement. The business becomes more attractive to customers because they feel safer, and the area around the store benefits from the increased customer traffic to the business. A small safe area evolves into a larger safe area, and pretty soon even a place like Times Square can be safe enough to become an attraction for out-of-town visitors.

Kelling talks about broken windows in a building. If broken windows go unrepaired, then it’s a signal that the building owner doesn’t care. One broken window leads to more broken windows, and eventually the building becomes just another piece of urban decay. On the other hand, a small investment in fixing broken windows makes the spiral go the other direction. If you show that you care about something, then other people will care too.

Applying this to Information Technology
Most IT organizations don’t start out as big organizations. In the beginning, some small business or department gets to the point where it needs information technology, and it hires IT people to help the business. Think of these people as the initial “foot patrol” because they usually have a good understanding of how the business works, and they work hand-in-hand with the business people who hired them.

But over time, two things happen:

  1. As the IT need grows, the administration and management of IT becomes a bigger and bigger chore. Someone has to coordinate all of these individual IT foot patrol people, and that new IT bureaucracy widens the gap between IT and its user community.
  2. As systems go into production, and more of the IT resources are shifted toward the care and feeding of the existing systems, the IT people move into a reactionary mode, responding to formal requests for resource instead of sensing the user needs as part of IT’s day-to-day contact with the users. Today’s all too common budget cuts and staff reductions make this reactionary mode even more likely.

Most police forces around the country (and probably around the world) are in this reactionary mode. You can call the police when you have a crisis (in the U.S., dial 9-1-1), but you don’t have any day-to-day contact with police officers, and there’s a tendency for the community to depersonalize the police department and blame it for crime.

Is it any surprise that the same thing has happened to many IT organizations? If you’re part of the end-user community, then you probably don’t talk to IT people on a day-to-day basis – you’re just in contact when you have a complaint or when you’re trying to deal with the bureaucracy of defining system requirements.

The Solution for IT
So how do we learn from what Kelling has done in New York City? What can we do in IT that is analogous to Kelling’s “fixing broken windows” approach? In my experience, there are three areas for change.

First, have your IT people spend more unstructured time with their end-users, getting to understand them and their problems. This seems obvious, and yet very few IT organizations do it, with most IT people coming in contact with end-users only as part of a specific project. When I managed a systems group that supported manufacturing, I made sure that all of my programmers and analysts regularly spent time in manufacturing plants. When I supported a group that did tax filing, I made sure that all of my people spent some time working side-by-side with clerks filling out tax returns.

Where possible, have the IT people actually do some of the user work to get a sense of the user issues. Where it’s not possible, have them buddy-up with a user and spend a day just getting a better understanding of what the users do and how it could be made better through the application of new processes and technology. You’ll be amazed at the payback you’ll get from this IT immersion in the user world.

Second, there is a way to directly apply the “fixing broken windows” method to IT. In every systems group I’ve ever managed, I’ve created a “Quick Response” (QR) team that specifically focuses on dealing with the minor system annoyances that will never make it through a formal project review process. We put size limits on the QR projects (e.g., nothing that takes more than a person-day), and the QR team has a limited budget, but within those limitations we let the users manage the Quick Response priorities.

The result is better camaraderie between IT and the users, and the users get a sense that things are better in the short-term. This makes an enormous difference in user morale and in overall perception of the IT organization. And it has an unusual side-effect in some cases: with a few minor tweaks, the existing systems are now more comfortable to the users, and so the users are less likely to demand unnecessary extreme solutions. Just as reducing minor crime can lead to a reduction in major crime, eliminating minor system annoyances can lead to a reduction in the need for major projects.

Third, have your managers do more walking around in the user parts of the building, in effect forming a foot patrol. When I was in school at MIT, my advisor, Professor Thomas Allen, told me about a project he had done to improve communication between rivaling departments. He had the business lock its bathrooms and give bathroom keys to the employees. But as a twist, he made sure that the employees of these two rivaling departments got keys to bathrooms that were located in their rival department’s area – not in their own area. This simple action, which forced employees in the two departments to interact with each other multiple times a day, led to a breakdown of the communication barrier between the departments. And while I’m not recommending locking your bathroom doors, this example does make a point: just having periodic informal face-to-face contact between IT people and their customers will lead to better communication and better community spirit.

In these days of stretch goals, constant business change and downsizing, it’s easy for IT to become a reactive organization. But look at what happens in communities when the police get overloaded and become reactive: an increase in crime and urban decay. You can fight lack of community in your business the same way that it was fought in New York City. Think about “fixing broken windows” and increasing foot patrols. It worked for New York City, and it will work for you.

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