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  • Writer's pictureSam Rockey

Unsafely Safe

Driving down to Broad Street in Oxford from the direction of the University Parks takes you to a junction with the King’s Arms pub. Catte Street opposite leads to the Radcliffe Camera, bicycles career down Holywell Street from New College on your left and buses unload people into the town centre on your right. It’s a beautiful, busy junction made more complex with students, tourists, shoppers all thronging through on foot. Approaching the junction a few years ago, I noticed with surprise that the traffic lights had been removed. Bewildered by the sudden onset of a lack of rules, I inched my car forward tentatively. I caught the eye of the cyclist opposite and we managed to agree who should go first, at the same time I stayed wary as a knot of people on the pavement seemed poised to step out. A slightly irritated bus driver gestured me onward and I finally made the turn towards Blackwells Bookshop. Safe.

This traffic experiment along with many others in the UK and around the world came out of some now famous work done by a ‘counterintuitive traffic engineer’ in The Netherlands called Hans Monderman. He advocated the removal of traffic lights in the interests of ‘shared space’. He had noticed that when the traffic lights in his local town were incapacitated by an electrical failure, the traffic flow improved. Emboldened by this, he embarked on an experiment replacing the traffic lights at the busiest local intersection with a simple circle in the road. The number of accidents plummeted and, surprisingly, traffic moved more swiftly. Monderman compared drivers in his new system to skaters on an ice rink having to choreograph their movements in a much more nuanced way in response to the movements of others. People were more attentive to what they’re doing, more relational and human, they had more ownership of their decisions.

Unsafe, oddly, became safe.

Who are the Mondermans (Monderwomen?) in corporate settings? Who dares to take down the traffic lights at the busy junctions of our work to see what happens when the rules are ours to invent – through looking one another in the eye, imagining how someone might act, interpreting a gesture, by cooperating and collaborating? Freed from obedience, might we invent something better?

The now mostly forgotten Douglas McGregor who worked at MIT in the 1950’s articulated a theory about how organisations are organised that relates to this traffic lights conundrum. Theory X organisations assume that people need carrot and stick, that they are naturally inclined to laziness, they need rules, set process, traffic lights and structures. They are designed to prevent the worst from doing their worst. Theory Y organisations assume that people are naturally curious, want to develop and look for their work to be meaningful. Theory Y organisations trust people to make their own decisions from shared principles and allow them to design ways of working that work. These organisations are designed to enable the best to do their best.

Is yours a Theory Y or a Theory x organisation? Are you a corporate Monderman?

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