Little Things

August 2, 2012

In 2005, socioeconomic researchers at Harvard, in conjunction with the local police force, performed a social experiment in Lowell, Massachusetts. After identifying over 30 of the highest crime rate areas in Lowell, the police forces were instructed to clean up litter from the roads and sidewalks, replace broken street lights, and implement a series of other small “cleanup” initiatives for 15 of the 30 areas. In the other 15, the police were instructed to continue operating normally. The result was an almost immediate 20% drop in police calls in the cleaned up areas. This is an interesting case-study for Broken Windows Theory.

What the police force found was that by addressing a series of little things, you can effect a cumulative impact that’s more significant than the sum of its parts. In fact, one of the foundational premises of the original article on the topic was that large problems like vandalism and crime are the causal result of allowing small problems to fester. Thus, by fixing problems when they’re small, you can prevent larger problems from ever occurring, for significantly less effort. I’ve written about how to apply this to a codebase, but I believe the generalized theory holds some interesting premises for team dynamics and organizational efficacy as it pertains to addressing the early symptoms of a system that’s trending badly.

The symptoms start small, which is largely the point. Twenty-minute standups can be one symptom, and can ultimately lead to a de-emphasis on internally managed accountability, resulting in external micro-management. Specialization among pairs could be another, which can create communication silos and erode team-wide communication. One of us is currently struggling with meeting overload, which can ultimately lead to a myriad of unhealthy organizational challenges. In comparison, these problems are significantly easier to address before they snowball. For instance, if someone feels especially articulate in a standup and is having trouble staying on point, it’s not unreasonable to politely interject that they’re getting off track and their story, while certainly fascinating, is a better topic for coffee-room conversation. In-team cliques can be discouraged from forming by encouraging promiscuous pairing and open communication in dev huddles. You can even reduce structured meetings by holding ad-hoc group conversations regularly with your team members and facilitating open, honest, direct, and respectful communication. Take my word for it: address the little things when they’re small. You wouldn’t believe how quickly an organization will fall to disarray if you let them get away with the small things.

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John is a serial conversationalist who spends entirely too much time engulfed in problem domains he knows nothing about and has no earthly business trying to learn. He can occasionally be found at your local coffee shop writing algorithms and trying to think deep thoughts.