Roundabouts and Network Leadership

Last week I came across a Mythbusters video Shawn Callahan mentioned in a post on Facebook. In the video the two hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, test the effectiveness of a traditional 4-way stop versus a roundabout. Having grown up with roundabouts I wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that roundabouts got almost 20% more cars through compared to the 4-way stop. 

Traffic cop

However, what made me sit up was that they also ran a test where they put Jamie Hyneman in the middle of the 4-way stop playing the role of a policeman directing traffic. They simply wanted to test if the decision-making a traffic cop is making is more efficient at getting cars though than the decision-making all the individuals in the cars can do by themselves. 

Here is what really surprised me: The ‘top-down’ traffic cop approach was 30% less efficient compared to the 4-way stop. In other words, when decision-making is removed at the local level efficiency is significantly reduced. However, when we replace the traffic cop with a roundabout we get a 60% improvement!

For me there are strong parallels to the way we manage our workplaces. I often see a battle between ‘old style’ industrial top-down traffic-cop approach where management is clearly visible, authoritative and controlling, versus the emerging network leadership approach, where management sets out the principles but pushes autonomy down through the organisation.

While the network leadership approach is emerging, the winds are changing fast. According to research by the Chief Executive Board, employees’ work is getting more and more inter-connected, and the need for coordination continues to grow. According to their 2012 report ‘Driving Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment’ 67% of respondents (of which there were more than 23,000) stated that greater amount of collaboration is required, and a large majority (ranging from 57% to 67%) said that they regularly coordinate work with people on different teams, at different job levels, in different organisations and with people outside their own department or function.

Tasking managers to be traffic cops directing collaborative efforts across and between organisations is – as the Mythbusters show demonstrates – simply too inefficient. Rather, we need to let employees coordinate work among them, and in our view the role of management should be all about creating the equivalent of efficient roundabouts:

  • RoundaboutSet the overall rules and priorities
  • Help employees connect
  • Empower employees to make decisions locally
  • Monitor what is going on and adjust rules and policies accordingly
  • Only get involved when there is a need, e.g. resolving conflicts

Welcome to the world of network leadership.