The Engaging Value of Risk

By Kevin Meyer

Rome trafficHumans tend to abhor chaos, and love to invoke rules to supposedly create order. We like rules because they make us feel protected, aligned, and perhaps operating on a fair playing field.

At the same time we dislike rules because they can protect us to the point of being smothering, align us to the point of being constraining, and fair to the point of being unfair. Regardless of perspective, there are an increasing number of them – thousands per year.  Most folks don’t blink an eye.

What are we doing to ourselves as a society? As organizations? Or individually as humans and leaders? Stay tuned…

Years ago I visited Italy and was surprised at the traffic. There are very few traffic signals in Italy. The town of Naples, with a million people, has about three. Signage is basically ignored. Miniature cars, and the rare larger sedan or SUV, rush all over the place intermingling with Vespas, buses and trucks. Sorrento, Rome, Florence… all roughly the same. This seems like pure mayhem and insanity to visitors from the U.S. with our highly disciplined traffic control… until you start to realize something:

Traffic flows continuously, everywhere.  It may appear slower, but without the batch stop-go-stop of mindless obedience to signaled intersections, often waiting for no cross traffic, there is actually more flow.  Batch vs. continuous flow?

Ahh… but it can’t be as safe, right? Wrong. Statistics show that Italy has a motor vehicle accident rate that is 30% better than the United States.

There’s actually some science behind the chaos – and some towns that are exploiting the science – as this Salon article description.

In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom. It’s called “second generation” traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and — of all subjects — evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it’s a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty.

“One of the characteristics of a shared environment is that it appears chaotic, it appears very complex, and it demands a strong level of having your wits about you,” says U.K. traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie, speaking from his home in Bristol. “The history of traffic engineering is the effort to rationalize what appeared to be chaos,” he says. “Today, we have a better understanding that chaos can be productive.”

And another from Der Spiegel with a story on how seven European cities are participating in an experiment to remove all traffic signs. Not just signs, but parking meters, lights, sidewalks, and even the painted lines on streets.

Drivers [in regulated areas with many signals] find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They’re constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.

The new traffic model’s advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves.

Chaos can be productive, liberty creates responsibility. Last year I wrote about how some enlightened companies are applying this concept to their own internal rules.

[At Neflix] there is no vacation policy, and the travel and expense policy is literally five words: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” Netflix believes high performance people people should be free to make decisions, and those decisions need to be grounded in context.

In the world of Netflix, flexibility is more important long term than efficiency. To inhibit the chaos that too much flexibility in a large organization can create, hire (and keep) only high performance people. High performance people make great decisions, which are better than rote rules.

Gemba Academy has adopted a similar Culture Code, where we have a simple General Policy: use good judgment.

Our friend Brad Power posted a piece in Harvard Business Review titled Drive Performance by Focusing on Routine Decisions that hits at a similar concept. Instead of creating rule-bound defined processes, improve the quality of the decision points. He illustrates the idea with an example those of us in the manufacturing world have all experienced: the potential maelstrom of materials control.

These two stories highlight the advantages of focusing process improvement on “diamonds and arrows” — i.e., making better decisions. Project leaders who focus exclusively on the “boxes and arrows” of workflow action improvement will often find themselves caught up fixing yesterday’s operations and systems issues.

Now we may have more psychobiological understanding on why this is the case. And it comes from some interesting experiments with school playgrounds in New Zealand.

Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school.

Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, the principal says. The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.

“When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”

Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play. However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely, much to the horror of some teachers at the time, he said.

I bet there was some horror, but what are the results?

When the university study wrapped up at the end of last year the school and researchers were amazed by the results.

Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol. Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a “loose parts pit” which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose.

“The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. It was expected the children would be more active, but researchers were amazed by all the behavioural pay-offs.

Schofield urged other schools to embrace risk-taking. “It’s a no brainer. As far as implementation, it’s a zero-cost game in most cases. All you are doing is abandoning rules,” he said.

“All you are doing is abandoning rules.” If only it was that easy.

Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.

Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. “You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”

Risk creates engagement, and engagement creates understanding – be it of the environment, consequences of actions, or simply new concepts. Understanding creates high performance decisionmaking.

Whether it’s in the chaos of traffic, the corporate offices of Netflix, or on the playground.

So what about all those rules? In the quest for structure, equality, and serenity, what are we doing to ourselves? And the next generation? Instead, how can we leverage chaos and risk to improve engagement?

1 Comment

  1. Mark Bonifacio

    February 3, 2015 - 11:13 am

    Great stuff, Kevin. Hope all is well.