Nassim Taleb argues human “alertness is weakened when one relinquishes control to a system.” Motorists, he explains, “need the stressors and tension coming from the feeling of danger to feed their attention and risk controls.” Perhaps unbeknown to Taleb, the largely unremarkable town of Swindon in England has been proving this for over 40 years with the Magic Roundabout.
Swindon’s is one of five such roundabouts in the country. Traffic flows around five mini-roundabouts in an outer loop, in the usual (for the UK) clockwise manner, but around a smaller inner roundabout in a counter-clockwise direction. Who designed such a bizarre roundabout? The motorists themselves.
During the design and pilot phase traffic police located at each mini-roundabout monitored how drivers navigated the frankly confusing and very busy intersection, with the most successful pathways mapped out as the final layouts. The higher levels of situational awareness motorists needed to navigate the mess created an optimised and effective design that even today, with massively increased traffic numbers, enjoy quick flow through times and very few accidents.
The Magic Roundabout shows how effective a decentralised (distributed) decision-making approach in a complex system can be. Tapping the power of human cognition is essentially how civilisations - not just roundabouts - are built, yet, many organisations choose to ignore this effective-optimisation resource in favour of top-down decision-making that aims to deliver efficiency. The high-religion of efficiency - six sigma - is clearly effective in ordered, manufacturing environments such as Motorola and GE where it was developed and expanded. But in a non-ordered environment - such as a service firm - a focus on efficiency kills effectiveness, as 3M found out to its cost. Being effective in a complex environment requires letting go of the illusory certainty of efficiency - engineering precision - and instead embracing the messiness of the Magic Roundabout by tapping into the effective power of human awareness.
Centrally-designed systems may often be aesthetically neat and pleasing, but they are also rigid and slow to respond to changing external conditions, demands and new information. Messier systems, on the other hand, adapt and change quicker - and with less effort - when needed. To be effective in a more complex world organisations must build inefficiencies into their structure to allow the entire system to have enough adaptive capacity to rapidly evolve to meet new circumstances and needs. This requires investing not in human resources, but human beings, capable of rapidly making sense of the complexity around them in a far more wonderful way than any designed system (as this video shows). If civilisations and roundabouts can be built on human-generated effectiveness, what stops your organisation from doing it?