Creating A Work Environment Without Broken Windows

Precision and attention to detail were never my strengths. I’m more of a big ideas guy and appreciate having others around who can get to a deeper level of detail. However, after having been involved in multiple startups, I can definitely say that it is difficult to succeed without creating a conducive environment for precision.

In the book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains the concept of “Broken Windows” that was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder.

Taking this concept further to a business context, it makes a relatively intuitive point that creating a proper environment with an air of intolerance for unwanted things (laziness, negativity, etc.) facilitates desired results. In the book, Gladwell proposed that the single most important factor in the precipitous decline of New York City’s crime in in the 90s was cleaning up the city of its graffiti and “broken windows”.  It was the intolerance of the “little crimes” that helped eliminate most of the “big crimes”.

I’ve observed this phenomenon myself in the startup world. A creative, laid back environment of bean bag chairs and a dart board will result in a certain type of creative thinking that may be needed in the initial stages of a startup environment. However, if that environment is not kept clean and organized, the reliability and professionalism of the team will suffer. We, consciously or subconsciously, absorb the environment around us and react accordingly. While some think that a startup should be just be about creative ideas and not professionalism, this could not be further from the truth. Let me remind everyone about a truism of entrepreneurship, “ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s all in the execution”.

This is why the military is so inflexible about keeping the barracks clean as well as paying such close attention to personal hygiene. Without an environment of absolute cleanliness the troops will not have the level of discipline that is required in the military.

As many know, I’ve been pretty uncompromising about prompt starts to meetings and delivering on deadlines. It’s not just to be a hard ass (which I’ve never been accused of), but to create an environment that can succeed against the difficult odds that most entrepreneurs face. Once the proper attention to professional elements of the job is ingrained in the work culture, I’ve also tried my best to allow a creative, non-standard type of work place as well. In other words, creating a great work environment isn’t just about playing games and allowing flexible hours. It is about creating the right environmental message that is fun but professional at the same time.