Shared space – in traffic and at work

Danish media have been kicking up a storm lately about all the anarchistic bicycle riders (primarily in Copenhagen) who ignore traffic rules. The debate has been founded on an interesting but unstated premise that traffic safety comes from always following the rules. As long as you go by the book, nothin bad can happen to you.

Well, according to this NYTimes article, dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman has a rather different approach: Throw away the book. He designed:

a busy intersection in the center of town… Not only was it virtually naked, stripped of all lights, signs and road markings, but there was no division between road and sidewalk. It was, basically, a bare brick square.

But in spite of the apparently anarchical layout, the traffic, a steady stream of trucks, cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, moved along fluidly and easily, as if directed by an invisible conductor. When Mr. Monderman, a traffic engineer and the intersection’s proud designer, deliberately failed to check for oncoming traffic before crossing the street, the drivers slowed for him. No one honked or shouted rude words out of the window.

The proponents of the “rules as the basis of safety” school of thought have a hard time explaining why this can work, but to Monderman the explanation is simple:

To make communities safer and more appealing, Mr. Monderman argues, you should first remove the traditional paraphernalia of their roads – the traffic lights and speed signs; the signs exhorting drivers to stop, slow down and merge; the center lines separating lanes from one another; even the speed bumps, speed-limit signs, bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. In his view, it is only when the road is made more dangerous, when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer.

“All those signs are saying to cars, ‘This is your space, and we have organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you,’ ” Mr. Monderman said. “That is the wrong story.”

So why am I discussing traffic? First of all, that this concept works is to traditional thinking counterintuitive, and I LOVE counteruntuitive. Secondly, I think the exact same thing applies to the business world also. What rules, traffic signs, regulations and other behaviour modifying artifacts could you remove from traditional business, only to find that things in fact flow even more smoothly? That suddenly workers become aware of what’s going on, in stead of simply drivingworking by the book? How much simpler, easier and more fulfilling would work be in this way?

I recently interviewed Peter Mikkelsen, the HR manager at Servicegruppen, a danish IT service company, who have a world class track record of creating employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and excellent financial results. Their take on this is: “Let’s substitute dialogue for rules. We’d rather have people talk openly about good solututions, than simply following the rules.” Excellent thinking!

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