Traffic Light Or Roundabout: What's Your Work Like?

HappyHenry
Written by in Practices
- 6 min read

In his excellent book Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan asks whether your organisation behaves like traffic lights or roundabouts. These are two very different approaches to busy road intersections. Traffic lights have strict rules, which require no thought or judgement. You go when its green and stop when its red. Roundabouts, on the other hand, are based on agreed principles.

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Vehicles already on the roundabout have priority and, on smaller roundabouts, those in front of you go first (that is those to the right of you in the UK and Australia, to the left in most of the rest of the world).

Roundabouts require a lot more judgement. Instead of simply obeying the light, you need to watch the other traffic and work out when it is safe to go. Different people will make different judgements in the exact same situation.

So which model is your organisation based on? Does it have a big employee handbook and lots of rules that set out what you are allowed do? These can cover anything from how to respond to a customer complaint to how much you can claim in expenses. Or does it rely on guiding principles? At Happy we have no set procedure for how to respond to a customer complaint, or what compensation is allowed. Instead the guiding principle is simple, “delight the customer.”

Our front-line staff - who call every delegate who has rated the course below good or, on likelihood to recommend, at 6 or below – are empowered to do whatever is needed to create that delight. That could be just listening, it could be sending a box of chocolates or flowers or it could be a full refund and a place on another course. In one case they booked somebody on a competitor’s course because our course wasn’t going to run. Its up to them to work out what would create delight.

24 rules or one guiding principle?

Malene Rydahl (author of “Happy as a Dane”) describes how, at the Hyatt hotel she worked at, there were 24 rules to follow every time you checked in a guest. People were inevitably focused on making sure they followed the rules, especially as “mystery shoppers” would visit and check.

They replaced those 24 rules with one guideline, “treat our clients as you would a guest in your own home”. With staff free to use their own judgement, customer satisfaction rose 80%.

Roundabouts are, of course, more chaotic than traffic lights and you might think they would lead to more accidents without the clear rules of the traffic light system.

In fact the reverse is true. Research in the US has found that roundabouts lead to 37% less collisions and 90% less fatalities than traffic lights. Conversion to roundabouts also led to quicker traffic flow, with a reduction in delays of anywhere between 20% and 89%. They are also cheaper to build.

Let people use their judgement, within agreed guidelines, and the results are far better. This is of course the core of the concept of self-management, that you get a better result when you let people think for themselves.

Rules or Guidelines?

So does your organisation use a traffic light approach, based on absolute rules. Or is it more like a roundabout, based on agreed guidelines and judgement?

Happy provides learning and has done so for 32 years. Initially it was on IT software, and now it is more about personal development and leadership, and creating happy workplaces. In the early days, all those years ago, I had a detailed checklist of what each facilitator had to do each day. Now it is encapsulated in six words: “Don’t tell when you can ask.”

If I had continued to prescribe how people trained, then they could only have been as good as me. Instead, working within that guideline, what our facilitators have achieved is way beyond anything I could have done, and I am rarely in the top half on our quality measures when I do still deliver.

One of our clients is Riverford, who deliver organic fruit and vegetables in weekly boxes. Their packers have to decide whether the produce is fresh enough to put in the box. They replaced the detailed guide on what blemishes to look out for with “if you wouldn’t buy it yourself, don’t put it in the box.”

While he was at IT hosting company Rackspace, Dominic Monkhouse replaced a detailed internet policy on what you were and weren’t allowed to look at with one phrase: “If you wouldn’t want your grandmother seeing it, then don’t do it.”

Get rid of Stupid Rules

Dominic also had an ongoing “stupid rule” award. “Find me a rule that doesn’t make sense and I will get rid of it and you will get £50”. At team building events one of my favourite activities is to get each table of employees to come up with a rule they would like to get rid of. If everybody present agrees (and normally they do), then it goes. Senior management are often astonished by the absurdity of some of the rules that they (or their predecessors) have inflicted on the workforce.

At no time has this been more important than at the present. Over the last three months of the Covid-19 crisis, organisations – in health and beyond – have moved more quickly than they ever have before. “We have achieved more in two weeks than we normally would in two to five years”, commented David Amos, Head of People at an East London NHS Trust.

A key reason is that the rules have been set aside and front-line staff have been encouraged to use their best judgement to get things done. Will this continue or will we go back to the old ways?

So is your organisation hidebound by rules that must be strictly obeyed? What could you get rid of, by common agreement? And what guidelines could you introduce instead to enable people to think for themselves?

This guest blog is written by Henry Stewart, founder at Happy Ltd in London. Happy seeks, through consultancy and training, to transform organisations to become happy, productive workplaces –based on creating an environment of trust and freedom. You can contact Henry directly at henry@happy.co.uk.

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