Broken Windows, Broken Brands and Beyond

Tom Asacker In their groundbreaking article in The Atlantic called “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety,” Kelling and Wilson argued that rampant crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and that no one is charge. One unrepaired window is an invitation to break more windows, and lawlessness spreads outward from buildings to streets to entire communities.

On the streets, “quality-of-life” crimes – panhandling, public urinatin, vagrants sleeping in doorways – serve as the equivalent of broken windows. In the subways, low-level crimes like fare-jumping act similarly as small but unmistakable signals that, left u;nchecked, invite further chaos. In such an environment, according to Kelling and Wilson, cititzen co9mplaints will often be met with excuses: the police are understaffed; the courts don’t punish firt-time offenders, etc. Soon, citizens stop calling the police, convinced they can’t do anything. Or won’t.

Can you see the parallels between broken windows and broken brands? A broken brand is a company or organization that has no idea where it’s going; has no way of communicating its vision (since none exists); and therefore cannot align its resources nor inspire its people. It’s in disorder. And this disorder leads to people walking around concluding that no one cares and that no one is in charge. Employees may see problems, but they stop complaining and suggesting ideas, since they’re convinced management can’t do anything. Or won’t.

A recent FranklinCovey survey of 11,000 U.S. Employees conducted by Harris Interactive shows that fewer than 10 percent (that’s 10 percent!) believe their daily activities are actually related to corporate goals. This is utterly inexcusable, but quite simple to understand: Leaders are not connecting their organizations’ mission to the individual’s sense of accomplishment, because they don’t have a mission. They may have goals and objectives and to-do’s, but they don’t have a unifying perspective (a.k.a. a stong brand) that inspires people and guides their actions.

A lack of a stong brand (a central organizing principle) becomes an open invitation for people to run around following their own self-serving agendas. And like the broken window syndrome in neighborhoods, this lawlessness ends up spreading from employee to employee and from employee to customer. Before long, the organization is hardened with passionless team members, uninspired customers, shrinking margins, layoffs, accounting scandals, Dilbertesque cynicism…a vicious – and totally avoidable – downward spiral.

In the old days of command –and-control leaders acted as police and, like the police of that time, they were far more integrated in the community (organization). They could see-or sense – signals of disorder and intervened to protect their brand. The leaders of today – like the police of today – are dealing with a much more complex environment with widely different competitive pressures, customer demands, stockholder expectations, and workforce requirements. They are struggling with the emerging global economy, the IT revolution and the collapse of the old Industrial business paradigm.

The only way for today’s leader to prevent the disorderly behavior that will ultimately corrupt his or her organization is to viscerally understand and passionately communicate the organization’s reason for being…its brand! It’s vision of the future, which will instill a sense of belonging. Its compelling essence, which will inspire sharing, tolerance and teamwork. Its driving philosophy, which will convey order and focus, and instill confidence and give people permission to act and bring ideas to life. Its special spirit, which will engage and unify people, and compel them to self-police the organization and prevent the small but unmistakable signals of impending chaos.

Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.” And this especially true today, with major problems facing the world of business. Too many leaders have taken the easy route by ignoring their higher purpose, and relying instead on the proverbial carrot and/or stick. And their people have naturally responded by going through the motions, practicing their comfortable ofld routines and camouflaging problems. There are no fresh perspectives, since the culture stifles creativity and candid discussions (Remember: No one can do anything. Or they won’t).

What’s needed in today’s cynical and hypercompetitive marketplace is thoughtful, visionary problem solving. Innovation! Stop messing up your corporate neighborhood with disorganized actions and get back to the fundamentals. Start living, communicating and taking care of your brand. Rediscover your unbridled imagination and idealistic hopes and create new and preemptive benefits for your customers. And…you’d better get moving. Because broken windows are easy to repair. But broken brands definitely are not.

© 2003 Tom Asacker

Tom Asacker is an author, corporate advisor and public speaker with a unique specialization – advancing business relationships by helping organizations transition from “economically driven” to “emotionally driven”. His philosophies are outlined in his highly acclaimed book Sandbox Wisdom and its sequel The Four Sides of Sandbox Wisdom .

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