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Roundabouts and Traffic Lights

By February 8, 2012One Comment

A Quiz:

  • What’s safer ? An intersection with traffic lights or a roundabout ?
  • What’s faster ? Traffic lights or a roundabout ?
  • What’s better for the environment ? A roundabout or traffic lights ?

The answer in each case is the roundabout, they reduce overall accidents and drastically reduce the number of serious accidents (very few t-bone crashes). Traffic flows much faster with a roundabout as well and this in turn leads to a better environmental outcome with less start stop traffic producing less emissions.

I was reminded of this recently listening to Bjarte Bogsnes talk about his work making the financial planning of organisations more agile (Nigel promises to write about this shortly) – he used the metaphor of traffic lights and roundabouts when thinking about the budget process. The traffic lights are rigid rules, the decision about when to drive (or spend) is being made by someone else who is removed from the intersection and placed in a computer program sequence. At a roundabout the drivers who are at the intersection have to make their own informed decision about when to stop and when to go themselves in consort with other drivers.

Traffic lights are a rigid system, programmed based on traffic patterns at some fixed point in time perhaps 5 years ago, they don’t adapt. At a quiet time with one car on the road you may still end up arbitrary stopped because that’s what the traffic light, or the system says to do. With a roundabout, the system adapts; Little traffic and everyone can just flow through the intersection without even slowing down much. Lots of traffic and the system adapts, people slow and take their turn to move through.

Traditional organisations and projects are very much like the traffic lights, planned with the best of intentions to be safe and consistent, but the process is rigid and doesn’t adapt to the daily changes in traffic flow, market intelligence, sales or perhaps software development progress. Agile organisations and projects are like the roundabout, individuals and teams taking responsibility for themselves with the process providing a framework for dynamic, localised decision making based on the best currently available information. While traffic lights take responsibility away from individuals, roundabouts require individuals to step up and take responsibility for themselves and the other drivers negotiating their way forward.

Interestingly despite the indisputable benefits of roundabouts, they make many drivers feel anxious. The fear may not be not be rational, but it is real. We find the same thing as we introduce Agile concepts to organisations. Leaders are scared of giving up control and individuals are scared of taking responsibility for their own decisions, regardless of the benefits.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Noori says:

    You are right but round about can not be made in every place. If we follow the rules of the traffic light, number of accident can also be decrease.

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