A Dutch roundabout in Cambridge: masterpiece or Dutch daub?

Roundabout from the air

By Paul Jansen of runandjump ltd

A blog about adopting solutions from elsewhere...

Proponents of the concept of self-management and self-managed organisations feel that one of the key arguments for a more liberated and supported workforce is that the world in which we operate has become increasingly complex and unpredictable. Some call it VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Rather than trying to capture that VUCA world in rules and algorithms, we should try to prepare ourselves and tool ourselves up for being able to deal with an infinite number of possible scenarios. The key to that being to trust the creativity and intrinsic motivation of people to fix problems and find solutions, armed with not much more than a number of principles and basic agreements.

Queue the oft-used metaphor of the traffic light versus the roundabout: both are there to deal with a simple problem (‘how to safely cross a junction’) with an unlimited number of scenarios involving traffic levels, weather, light, power, etc. But both start from very different premises:

The Traffic Light solution assumes that people cannot be trusted to do the right thing. They need to be told what to do. It assumes that complex problems need rules and technology to be solved. And we therefore need a plan for every scenario; if it doesn’t work well, we clearly must have overlooked some of the possible scenarios.

The Roundabout solution approaches the problem from a different angle and assumes that people CAN be trusted - and will trust each other - to use judgment and do the right thing. It assumes that complex problems can be solved with simple rules or principles leaving room for judgment. And that many scenarios will unfold but social coordination will be able to tackle them.

It is interesting to note that although Traffic Lights are more expensive to run, less resilient (think for instance of a power outage) and register more accidents than Roundabouts, nevertheless the UK has significantly times more traffic lights than roundabouts. The reasons behind this are worth of a blog in itself, but today I would like to go somewhere else with this.

Cambridge City Council, already well-known for being cycle-friendly, has recently upped its ambition to enhance the safety and traffic experience for cyclists and pedestrians. Being my town of residence, it didn’t escape my attention that the Council had decided to adopt a new form of roundabout for a busy junction not far from Addenbrooke's hospital. It would be a ‘Dutch style’ roundabout which had been developed - with the assistance of a Dutch engineering firm - based on a design quite common in bicycle-mad Netherlands. It promised priority for people on bicycles and on foot and should be safer and smoother. Imagine my excitement: a roundabout (!) and stemming from my native Holland too!

Two years and nearly three times the budget later, the roundabout is here and cynics and proponents have lined up to see how it fares. The first point was scored in favour of the cynics, as within days a driver knocked over a beacon (‘Roundabout closed after hit-and-run by driver’ shouted one of the headlines.) And the discussion is ongoing whether this design is going to deliver on its promises.

All this made me think of my own experiences of bringing a foreign (yes: Dutch) success model to the UK, and why we found it to be so difficult to achieve outcomes similar to its original setting.

It is an obvious – and laudable - ambition, to see a successful solution elsewhere and wanting to transplant it to your own situation. But there are some easy traps to fall into, which I think are threefold.


The first is the trap of simplification. This happens when you see the solution as a mechanistic one and underestimate the (sometimes less obvious) details. It assumes that if we copy the roundabout’s design exactly, then we will get the same outcomes those cloggies enjoy on their side of the pond. Luckily the Cambridge design team remembered that our roundabouts go clock-wise, so at least they didn’t fall completely in that trap, but have they thought of all the details? Or are there any details that they could or should have added, to compensate for the difference in road users here in the UK, for instance additional road signs to warn users about the unusual situation?

In my personal experience when talking about organisational change, this trap is illustrated by organisations that want to establish self-managed teams but overlook what it takes from the leadership and the wider organisation to make these teams work. They introduce some of the structures, provide some training, copy some of the tools. But they overlook the significance of many of the other details. Not deliberately, but simply by underestimating their relevance. Often with disappointment as a result, both for the employees and the organisation involved.


The second trap is about the context. Let us first focus on the ‘hard’ context, as in ‘the rules’ or the infrastructure. In the case of the roundabout, in the Netherlands cycling lanes are mandatory. As a result, all road users know where cyclists are likely to appear (OK, anarchic Amsterdam may be an exception to this rule). Also, turning traffic has to give way to ongoing traffic, which applies to pedestrians, cyclists and cars alike. Finally, where signs are absent, bicycles and cars are equivalent road users and can all have priority depending on the setting.

Rules like these create certain behaviours and expectations that support the well-functioning of the Dutch-style roundabout. In the absence of these behaviours and – mutual – understandings between road users, it remains to be seen whether the roundabout will deliver on its promise in our UK context.

How is this trap manifesting itself when introducing the principles of self-management? As an example, let us look at an organisation’s IT systems. They often enforce a range of behaviours that are based on very different assumptions than those that support a self-managed context. They drive certain process steps, demand certain authorisations, and reflect the established bureaucracy and the hierarchical command and control assumptions on which the organisation is based. Without addressing those implicit and explicit rules and assumptions, self-management is hampered and teams are disempowered and obstructed.


And finally: culture.  You could argue that is essentially context too, but perhaps of a softer kind. In Holland, every car driver is also a cyclist. As a matter of fact, the country has more bicycles than people. As a result, a culture exists of mutual understanding and empathy between road users that perhaps is not quite present (yet) in the UK. This may well play an important role in how a technical solution such as a roundabout ultimately performs.

Again, I have seen how culture plays an important role in the success of adopting a model from elsewhere. For instance, introducing trust-based concepts into an organisation that is built on command and control is a long and difficult process. It can certainly work, but there is always a risk that behaviours snap back into their old patterns. Progress made in establishing trust can be easily undone by one undermining decision. It is an easy trap to fall into, and one that is – in my view – the main reason why change of this nature is so difficult. Patience, consistency of behaviour and leading from the top are all crucial elements to get this right.

The other day I tried out the roundabout for myself, on the bicycle of course. It looked great: the sun was shining, the new tarmac gleamed and the reddish-pink cycling lanes stood out brightly. Traffic was flowing gently and I got across smoothly and without incident. I was thrilled: another positive day for radical innovation. I want it to succeed. Let’s hope that Cantabrigian road users can prove that culture, context and design can evolve here too and strengthen our case for more trust-based solutions.


Paul Jansen leads runandjump ltd, a consultancy that provides coaching, courses and support to organisations that want to realise their full potential by unleashing the capabilities of their workforce. Paul has built a reputation for introducing Buurtzorg’s concept of ‘self-management’ to many organisations in and outside the UK. He is based in Cambridge and recently presented his webinar ‘Who Needs a Manager?’ for the Cambridge Network (watch a recording here ). He regularly blogs on aspects of self-management, which you can find here: https://www.runandjumpltd.co.uk/blog 


About Dutch daub: In the 1880s a stream of cheap, poorly painted still-lifes were exported to the US as ‘real Dutch paintings’. They ended up on the walls of many second-rate hotels and restaurants, receiving the accolade ‘Dutch daub’ over time – source: De Dutchionary, by Gaston Dorren

Want to know more about this roundabout saga?

Cambridge's Dutch-style roundabout: Why all the fuss?

• Cambridge City Council’s video explaining the roundabout

To read more information, click here.

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