Governance, Project management

Traffic lights, roundabouts and decision-making

Photo by Bart EversonLast week I saw a presentation from Bjarte Bogsnes of Statoil, at a meeting about Beyond Budgeting, which offers “a management model that is more empowered and adaptive [and] releasing people from the burdens of stifling bureaucracy”. Part of they ethos of Beyond Budgeting is to bring decision-making back to the people who have direct experience of the information being used—and not to escalate it to senior managers operating away from the actual work. He offered a good analogy and a story.

“We want our organisations to be more like using roundabouts, and less like navigating traffic lights,” he said. When people drive up to a roundabout they are required to look at the traffic, make a judgement about when it’s appropriate to go, and act. By contrast traffic lights take away a lot of the decision-making from the drivers; the lights tell them when to stop and when to go. Traffic lights operate without much of the information available to the drivers, such as where the other vehicles are, where they’re indicating to go, where pedestrians may be, and so on.

He went to give the example of Grovehill junction in Beverley, Hull. This was once a perfectly functional junction with a roundabout, until the council decided to install traffic lights. Then what was previously white lines and drivers’ judgement became a complicated system of 42 traffic lights. Traffic slowed, and it took people longer to navigate the junction. One day all the traffic lights stopped working. “The traffic is moving better than when they are on,” one resident is quoted as saying in the local paper, “There doesn’t seem to be a problem, everyone seems quite confident going through the junction without the lights. There’s no tailbacks.”

One notable thing about this analogy is just what impact can occur from a shift in decision-making. The traffic lights are not only saying what to do (“stop”, “go”,…) but also when to do it. As the residents of Beverley discovered, the overall result is retrograde, thanks to inappropriately-timed decisions made with insufficient information.

We can bring the lesson back to our office workplaces. The further decision-making is from the people with direct experience of matter in hand the slower it will be. And of course, because the information goes through layers of interpretation and filtering it may not be the best decision, either. Conversely, the more we can push decision-making to those with first hand knowledge of a situation the more effective we can be in our organisations.

As drivers, roundabouts are scary when we encounter them for the first time; but with a bit of practice they work incredibly well.

Photo by Bart Everson

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