How to get your team to manage themselves

written by  Ryan Seamons

“People can be trusted, and will trust one another, to use judgment and do the right thing.
Complex problems can be managed with simple rules and agreements that leave room for judgment: give the right-of-way to vehicles already in the circle and go with the flow of traffic.
Many scenarios will unfold in the roundabout, but social coordination will be sufficient to handle them.”

—Aaron Dignan, “Brave New Work”

Managing is Tough

One of the toughest parts of managing is keeping your team aligned, especially during chaotic and changing situations. A natural reaction is to tighten control and start dictating rules and commands.

A few years ago I worked in a department of 30 people at a Silicon Valley tech company. A couple of team members were struggling. Everyone knew it. They weren’t producing and really didn’t seem like they were working a full work-week. The VP in charge of the team decided that what needed to change was more direct oversight of the entire team:

No one would be allowed to work remotely moving forward.

As you can imagine, it didn’t go well. Team members didn’t like the restriction of freedom. It didn’t end up changing the poor performers. They showed up in the office more often but still didn’t get results. While this wasn’t the thing that made me eventually leave the team, it was definitely a strong signal about the approach moving forward.

My VP decided to set up a traffic light to dictate what needed to happen. That felt the safest. What he should have done instead of trust and treat people like individuals. That would have been using a roundabout.

Let’s talk about roundabouts vs traffic lights.

Traffic Lights vs Roundabouts

Traffic lights are easy. There are rules. Green means Go. Red means Stop. Maybe you have to use a little judgment during yellow, but overall you don’t have to worry much. Just do what you’re told and it will all work out.

Except that it doesn’t.

Traffic lights don’t hold a candle to Roundabouts when it comes to results.

Roundabouts are safer. There’s a 75% reduction in collisions and a 90% reduction in fatal collisions compared to traffic lights.
Roundabouts are more efficient. You see an 89% reduction in delays compared to traffic lights.
They are also cheaper to maintain ($5k-$10k/year cheaper) and they always work (power outages have zero impact)

And those types of dramatic gains can be seen when you apply this as a mental model at work.

Roundabouts require trust and attention. You have to be proactive.

When you use a roundabout you have to:

  1. know where you’re going
  2. watch out for others
  3. signal intent
  4. move forward

Roundabouts provide a perfect mental model for what environment you need to create.

How to use roundabouts on your team

Using roundabouts at work is about new mindsets and new mechanics.

Want to know what system you’re using at work? Traffic Light team ask questions like these:

  • What do I have to do?
  • What does my manager want?
  • I don’t want to look stupid.
  • I hope I don’t get punished!
  • When will we deliver?
  • I can’t say no.

Roundabout teams are more like this:

  • What can and should I do?
  • What will help my manager and team?
  • Others probably have similar questions.
  • What can I learn?
  • Why are we delivering this?
  • Saying no is necessary to make us better

3 ways you can shift the mindset on your team:

  1. Focus on outcomes, not outputs. Stop worrying about the exact process so much and start worrying about what your people impacting. OKRs are a great approach for doing this.
  2. Make it safe to fail. One reason roundabouts are better than traffic lights is that failure isn’t as damaging. It’s safer to crash in a roundabout. Now, I don’t recommend that. But the reality at work is that failure will happen. Is it safe for people to fail and learn? Or does it cause fireworks?
  3. Slow down to speed up. People aren’t machines. Taking moments to have real conversations (especially during regular 1:1s) while it can feel unproductive can often be the most productive thing you can do.

Are your teams using traffic lights or roundabouts?

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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