What lessons might road traffic engineering have for managers wishing to foster creative collaboration and a culture where people take personal responsibility and the initiative?

High Street Kensington in London is an incredibly busy road.  Busy with traffic, busy with pedestrians. Over the years it became festooned with road signs and street furniture designed to keep traffic and pedestrians apart – keep them safe.  When all of these crossing controls, barriers and warning signs were taken away, road traffic incidents decreased significantly. By making the situation seem more dangerous, it became safer.  We’re all familiar with situations where by striving to be more efficient, organisations or teams become less effective. Can our positive paradox of traffic management help us understand what’s going on here?

The High Street Kensington scheme is a version of a ‘shared space’ design. Shared space was pioneered by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman in the Dutch province of Friesland.

“We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour…The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

(Der Spiegel quotes Monderman)

The idea of shared space design is to encourage negotiation of priority between different road users in shared space. This is mostly achieved through non-verbal communication and Monderman found that he needed traffic to slow to less than 20mph for this to occur.  His theory was that the built environment might have a more positive impact on behaviour than familiar traffic control measures. He decided to take away all of the means by which one would traditionally attempt to control behaviour – not just road signs, but also dropping kerbs to make the space ‘for’ pedestrians and ‘for’ traffic less distinct.

As Monderman explained:

“When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.”

This is an example of the risk compensation effect: the riskier something seems, the more careful we are. It’s been suggested that rather than airbags and other driver protection devices the biggest aid to road safety would by a large spike protruding from the centre the steering wheel of every car, van and lorry.

Does shared space design work? In part. It’s designed for and works best where there is already heavy pedestrian usage. Also, it’s vehemently opposed by charities and groups representing people that find it difficult to communicate in the ways upon which it relies: principally the visually and hearing impaired.

Monderman makes clear:

“[Shared space is a]…design approach rather than a design type characterised by standard features”.

As such it might seem to be adaptable to different environments. What about in organisations? It might suggest that where a process or strategy isn’t working the thing to try first is the counterintuitive one: to reduce or remove some of the rules and measures such that people on the ground can negotiate a more effective way – are forced to, in fact. Just bear in mind that they need the power to negotiate – don’t try shared space on a motorway – and that not everyone will be similarly empowered – like the visually impaired in shared space. This is important because those that feel less empowered to negotiate may have the quietest voices – so the emphasis should be on listening hard, being easily persuaded and giving active support. If something isn’t working or performance has plateaued, removing a rule or stricture isn’t likely to be the answer, but it is a strong candidate to consider as a safe – lower risk – first step on the road to better.