The small things matter – big time


Photo by judepics

In this interesting short article on the inside influence report Noah Goldstein describes the broken windows theory and recent experiments that continue to explore this idea. For those of you who haven’t heard about this concept before (I personally wrote about a few times before) here is a short description from Wikipedia:

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the normsetting and signalling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.

This is how Goldstein describes the implications of some of the recent research in this realm:

First, more generally, the findings show just how powerful subtle cues in an environment can be in terms of influencing people’s behavior. This means that we have to be quite careful and deliberate in how we set up and maintain the environments that we create for our target audience. Second, more specifically, this work suggests that allowing visible signs of norm violations in domains that might seem less important might elicit norm violations in much more important areas

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read Seth Godin’s post “That’s not the way we do things around here”:

When you say this to a colleague, a new hire, a student or a freelancer, you’ve established a powerful norm, one that they will be hesitant to challenge.

This might be exactly what you were hoping for, but if your goal is to encourage innovation, you blew it.

We sometimes take small things lightly. ”What can one sentence or on word can do?” We ask. “Be serious. Let’s devote time to the really big things”, we might rationalize. But if I learned one thing over the last few years is that the big things usually start from very small things. One indiscretion opens the door to another that opens the gate for the flood. This is how the financial crisis came about. This is how things like Enron happened.

And if you think little old you can’t do anything about it, you are wrong. Whether you are a manager or an employee, don’t let the small things pass. That remark. That decision to take down the standards. That sentence that does a whole lot to create an environment where innovation wouldn’t happen or people are just unhappy. You have the power. If it is the small things that matter, than it is the small people who can make the difference.


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