Less Rules – Better Cooperation

How many rules does coop­er­a­tion require? Less is more. For instance in traf­fic, as Hans Mon­der­man’s con­cept of shared space shows. But also in orga­ni­za­tions: few­er rules lead to more respon­si­bil­i­ty and live­ly cooperation.

Lenin is ascribed this state­ment that unfor­tu­nate­ly can­not be dis­missed com­plete­ly: “Rev­o­lu­tion in Ger­many? That will nev­er hap­pen, if these Ger­mans want to storm a sta­tion, they’ll buy a plat­form tick­et first!

This is why lawn edg­ings are so pop­u­lar in Ger­many. And this is why the myth per­sists that the major­i­ty of tax lit­er­a­ture world­wide deals with Ger­man tax law. 

We Ger­mans are known and appre­ci­at­ed for such virtues as dili­gence, con­sci­en­tious­ness, and sense of order. Even though we some­times over­do it, com­plain about over-reg­u­la­tion and inca­pac­i­ta­tion and then demand a reduc­tion in bureau­cra­cy, our rela­tion­ship to cre­ative chaos or even anar­chy is, to put it mild­ly, rather tense. 

There are always good rea­sons for anoth­er rule, a new instruc­tion or a new process. After all, every even­tu­al­i­ty must be con­sid­ered, every spe­cial case must be reg­u­lat­ed and every abuse must be pre­vent­ed. Where would we end up otherwise? 

Where would we end up?
When every­one said,
Where would we end up,
And no one would go,
To have a look,
Where you’d end up,
If you went.

Kurt Mar­ti

Good ques­tion. That’s why the Dutch traf­fic plan­ner Hans Mon­der­man actu­al­ly went and looked. For exam­ple at the busiest inter­sec­tion in Dracht­en. Here two two-lane main roads meet, with 22,000 cars, 5,000 cyclists and numer­ous pedes­tri­ans. Of course, this requires rules, signs, mark­ings, traf­fic lights and a clear spa­tial seg­re­ga­tion of cars, cyclists and pedes­tri­ans any­way. Where would we end up otherwise?

Shared space in Haren, Netherlands: No traffic signs, levelled road surface and merely orienting "boundaries" for road users.
Shared space in Haren, Nether­lands: No traf­fic signs, lev­elled road sur­face and mere­ly ori­ent­ing “bound­aries” for road users.

All this is actu­al­ly no longer need­ed in Dracht­en. Instead, Hans Mon­der­man relied on his shared space scheme. No cycle paths, no road mark­ings, no pri­or­i­ty signs or traf­fic lights, and not even side­walks bring order to the chaos. Hans Mon­der­man him­self demon­strat­ed how well this works by walk­ing back­wards over one of his inter­sec­tions with his eyes closed.

When you treat peo­ple like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.

Hans Mon­der­man

Where coex­is­tence is no longer reg­u­lat­ed by rigid rules, con­fu­sion and ambi­gu­i­ty pre­vail. And that is exact­ly the point, because now the road users have to some­how orga­nize them­selves in a dif­fer­ent way. There is much more eye con­tact and every­one pays more atten­tion to oth­er peo­ple instead of the traf­fic lights and their right of way. Not only in Dracht­en, but also in oth­er places with this con­cept of shared space, this has led to a reduc­tion in speed and thus to a bet­ter flow of traf­fic and sig­nif­i­cant­ly few­er accidents.

You have to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly cre­ate con­fu­sion, it sets cre­ativ­i­ty free. Every­thing that is con­tra­dic­to­ry cre­ates life.

Sal­vador Dalí

As para­dox­i­cal as it sounds, but more con­fu­sion through few­er rules leads to more secu­ri­ty. Sim­i­lar results were seen in the Dan­ish town of Chris­tian­field, where after remov­ing traf­fic lights and signs, fatal acci­dents fell from three to zero per year. And in the UK, sev­er­al cities removed the cen­tre line and a study found that 35% few­er acci­dents occurred as a result (cf. WIRED).

Not only on the roads does over-reg­u­la­tion pre­vent bet­ter coop­er­a­tion, bureau­cra­cy is also ram­pant in many organ­i­sa­tions. This was cer­tain­ly the case with FAVI, a French die-cast­ing man­u­fac­tur­er. There, for instance, a work­er had to show his supe­ri­or the old pair of gloves, receive a con­fir­ma­tion from him to be hand­ed over a new pair of gloves from the warehouse. 

When Jean François Zobrist, dur­ing his first time as CEO, found a work­er wait­ing in front of the ware­house, he did the math and found out that this work­er was oper­at­ing a machine that cost 600 francs per hour, or 10 francs per minute. Since the whole process of dis­pens­ing took 10 min­utes, dur­ing which the machine was at a stand­still, the gloves, worth 5.80 francs, cost the com­pa­ny an addi­tion­al 100 francs through this con­trol mech­a­nism! (cf. Cor­po­rate Rebels, Teil 1).

So Jean François Zobrist abol­ished these and many oth­er rules and orga­nized FAVI into mini fac­to­ries of 15 – 35 employ­ees who inde­pen­dent­ly made all deci­sions (includ­ing the pre­vi­ous­ly cen­tral­ized func­tions of Sales, Plan­ning, Engi­neer­ing, HR, etc.). Here too, few­er rules did not lead to the dread­ed chaos, but rather to more indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ty and self-organisation. 

The suc­cess of this trans­for­ma­tion was remark­able: FAVI was able to grow from 80 to over 500 employ­ees, con­tin­u­ing to pro­duce prof­itably in Europe with above-aver­age wages, where oth­er sup­pli­ers had long since shift­ed pro­duc­tion to the Far East. (cf. Fred­er­ic Laloux, Rein­vent­ing Orga­ni­za­tions. Ama­zon Affil­i­ate Link).

Give peo­ple slight­ly more trust, free­dom, and author­i­ty than you are com­fort­able giv­ing them. If you’re not ner­vous, you haven’t giv­en them enough.

Las­z­lo Bock

Per­fec­tion is not reached when there is noth­ing more to add, but noth­ing more to omit. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry thus sums up the prin­ci­ple that guid­ed Hans Mon­der­man. And that should guide us much more in the way we shape our col­lab­o­ra­tion. After all, let us final­ly rely more on fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples in our organ­i­sa­tions instead of a flood of rules and trust in peo­ple and their com­mon sense. 

A good gen­er­al guide­line for this is pro­vid­ed by the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship: Pur­pose and trust over com­mand and con­trol. And in con­crete terms, this could look like the Net­flix Cul­ture State­ment, for example:

  • Spend­ing con­trols: „use good judgment“, 
  • Pol­i­cy for trav­el: „act in Netflix’s best interest“, 
  • Vaca­tion pol­i­cy: „take vaca­tion“ or 
  • Parental leave pol­i­cy: „take care of your baby and yourself.“

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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