Traffic management: The new Organisational Effectiveness…

I recently wrote a post about challenging conventional wisdom and taking a counter intuitive approach to solving problems. A couple of articles in the evening standard back in February made me consider how the principles of modern traffic management can provide interesting cue’s for a rethink of how we should challenge the conventional wisdom around managing people in organisations in the future. No, seriously. Bear with me on this.

You see, in recent years the work of a certain Dutch engineer, Hans Monderman has transformed traffic management in mainland northern Europe through the concept of shared spaces or “naked streets”. For years, conventional wisdom has focussed on segregation and enforcement/control. As the article states:

The British public are steeped in the old religion of urban traffic. This holds that road space is for vehicles alone, their drivers being, by definition, irresponsible, stupid, selfish zombies whose safe driving can be assured only by physical barriers, lights, signs, road marks and highway codes. Potential victims – that is, other road users – must be corralled and caged along congested sidewalks in what is an iniquitous allocation of space.

By contrast, the notion of shared space seeks to remove all but the bare minimum of this street furniture – the controls, rules and regulations – and instead create a space where all are equal, and more importantly, where the focus of road users is on each other, not the controls.

Shared space assumes a road user who is responsible, alert and responsive to evidence of safety or danger. It assumes that the number of drivers who wish deliberately to run down strangers is minimal and uses the design of streets to help them not do so, mainly through ensuring eye contact. Most accidents occur when drivers are distracted by signs, notably traffic lights.

According to the research, at speeds above 20 mph, drivers pay more attention to the signs than they do to each other, abdicating responsibility for their own actions to a traffic light or road sign. Green lights foster a sense of false safety and overall, our roads are managed to prioritise speed over equality. Ironically, when we do this, speeds are proven to actually reduce, and no matter how much control we put in place, accidents continue to happen.

Conversely, where shared spaces have been introduced, accidents rates have been slashed  – way beyond any previously achievable targets set through traditional traffic management approaches – and overall road speeds increase.

The principle here is about accountability and responsibility – removing control and putting it back in the hands of the road users, and declaring them equal. They then go on to self police, treat each other with more respect and, ultimately, amazingly, stop killing each other. Who’s have thought it eh? Giving people a bit of responsibility and they wont go totally bonkers and ruin everything. You can see where im going with this now can’t you…

For far too long we have removed the resonsibility and accountability from employees in organisations, deeming them too irresponsible, incapable and or dangerous to lead by themselves, so we wrap them up in the equibalent of street furniture, traffic lights and signs – with rules, job descriptions, policies and “management instructuion”. The net effect is to create a similar scenario to a busy dangerous road, where employees focus way too much on the traffic lights and signs (rules, policies, departmental focus/limits) than they do on looking out for each other and navigating their own, more effective (for everyone concerned) path.

If taking a counter intuitive approach to traffic management can result in such dramatic falls in accident rates, have a positive impact on the surroundings and the overall health and wellbeing of the road users, one and all, is it such a hard leap to imagine what results a similarly counter intuitive approach to people management could achieve?


  1. Gareth, I love the connection you made between two seemingly unconnected arenas. Judging by common policies (particularly those related to social media) it seems that so many organizations fear their employees. If the employees truly cannot be trusted with common sense levels of judgement why are they employed? What is the fear driving such desperate attempts at control? What would happen if we took all the effort wasted on controlling employees and focused it on hiring great folks and channelling their efforts into a common direction?


  2. Nice one Gareth. You’re proving something i feel strongly about which is FLOW. Flow of traffic and flow of productive efforts in the workplace. You do NOT create flow by overly governing people – you create channeling. Which is restricted, tight and limited. I’ve found my flow is at its best when the leaders around give me a large plain to traverse, a trust in me to make decisions and a support that is invoked when i need it.

    All the best bosses I’ve ever had did everything BUT work through policies. It was more “what do we need to do for you to help you make the most impact in what you do..?” Some of them actually had blatant disregard for policies and knew how to navigate through those that were hampering their work.

    There will lots of people terrified about the removal of signs; lines and calming measures – and I thought in formulating my reply “why is that?”. Maybe compensation culture has something to do with it? The lack of personal responsibility from some people entering into the workplace? Overly tight competencies and recruitment processes? Poor management?

    Whatever it is, it’s time for a change. it’s 2012 for pete’s sake (who is Pete anyway?).

    I’m a big fan of a new way of structuring ALL organisations, bust the hierarchies, distribute power, enable people to opt in and deliver on their terms should all equal a more productive, engaging and innovative place to be. I’d love to see the workplace feeling like entrepreneurial start-ups with the agility and drive that brings out the best in people. And create FLOW which is something we all need more of.

    Another thought provoker here, nicely put and a highly stimulating call to action for us all.


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