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Embrace complexity and build yourself a roundabout

Don't try to "fix" complexity, embrace it!


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Marty de Jonge

2 years ago | 3 min read

March 2, 2020, the Netherlands

This morning I was in a traffic jam and heard the following on the news:

“There are 3 million road signs in the Netherlands, and 20% of these road signs turn out to be superfluous or even pose a danger because they are unclear.”

(To illustrate, we are here with 17.2 million Dutch people, which means that we have 1 sign per 5.7 inhabitants)

This reminded me of something that I had been aware of before and in what I was now reconfirmed;

“We are going way too far in our aim to regulate everything, and it simply has the opposite effect”.

The purpose of road signs should be to simplify and facilitate the flow of people and goods as much as possible. Right?

A traffic flow, especially during rush hour, is a complex system of individually moving vehicles. A system where every single action that one of these individuals takes can affect the entire system. It is impossible to control all variables, but that is what is being tried in different ways. Matrix signs, rush-hour lane signalling, variable speed indications, and many, many other methods.

You see the same thing happening in our current organizations. Nowadays, we work in an increasingly complex environment. Technological developments, and with it, the expectations of users are going at an exponentially accelerating pace.

In an attempt to control this increasingly complex environment you can do two things:
- Or, you try to control that complexity through even more rules.
- Or, you trust the power of self-organization within teams.

To draw the parallel with controlling complex traffic flows again, I would like to compare the use of traffic lights versus the use of a roundabout to control traffic at an intersection.

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

You will probably recognize this:

When you arrive at a junction with traffic lights, how much do you really think about it? Be honest, you probably drive in line behind the car in front of you, you sit there and wait for the traffic light to turn green. You automatically respond to this sign that you can drive again. Until the light turns red, via orange, and you stop. This all works fine as long as everything continues to run predictably. However at the moment that at such an intersection one of the traffic lights is defective … Panic and chaos.

Now compare this with how you cross an intersection when there is a roundabout. Driving towards it, you automatically start actively thinking, participating and anticipating on the situation.
There are a few rules like, you drive to the right, all traffic ON the roundabout takes precedence, with multiple lanes you take the outer lane if you want to take the next exit, and that’s about it. A roundabout cannot go “defect” because of a broken light or power outage and handles traffic much faster than through traffic lights.

What assumptions lie behind these two methods?

Traffic light:

  • People are unable to cross an intersection independently and must be told what to do.
  • Complex problems must be solved with extensive rules and technology to optimize the flow.
  • We need a plan to control every possible scenario, flashing lights, arrows pointing left or right, etc.

Roundabout:

  • People are perfectly capable of crossing an intersection independently and trust that other road users can do the same.
  • Complex problems can be solved with simple rules that leave room for your own insight.
  • There are many possible scenarios, but social coordination is sufficient to handle them.

Not only is the use of roundabouts based on a more positive image of mankind and complexity awareness. Research has also shown that the number of traffic accidents with physical injuries on roundabouts is 75 percent lower, yields 89 percent fewer delays and is cheaper in the longer term than in case of traffic lights.

Photo by Eduardo Flores on Unsplash
Photo by Eduardo Flores on Unsplash

And how do you handle this within our own organizations?

This often works in the same way that we have been used to since the industrial revolution. If the environment (whether internal or external) becomes more difficult to predict, then we try even harder to create a plan ready for as many scenarios as possible. Is there an incident somewhere? Let us do everything we can to close that gap by setting (extra) rules for it to prevent a recurrence. With this behaviour, we try to control complexity which is a lost race, to begin with.

Instead, take a good look around and determine how you can build your own roundabout that works for your organization. In Scrum, that roundabout would be your self organizing Scrum team.

“The Scrum Team consists of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. — Scrum guide 2017

Of course, rules are needed. Only minimize these to the strictly necessary ones and focus these rules on providing clarity and structure. Within this structure, self-organizing teams can make their own decisions based on current circumstances. Please rely on the intelligence that they can organize-and solve complex problems themselves.

Give it a try, experiment, learn from it and develop your own organizational roundabout.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/martydejonge/

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Marty de Jonge

Agile program manager

As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.


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