Science fiction writer Douglas Adams has a wonderful notion in his novel Dirk Gently's Holisitic Detective Agency. Imagine a future when you are so busy that you don't have time to believe in all the things you know you should. The solution? You outsource your thinking to an electronic monk, who is programmed to believe for you. This future is already with us: today's electronic monks are the experts, law-makers, consultants, life coaches, and therapists who, if we're not careful, take away from us the ability to think things through for ourselves.

wordle image for shared spaceWhen driving, we give away our power to make critical judgments to traffic lights, and as pedestrians to the railings, which guide us to cross only in fixed places. Surprisingly, it's this field of Traffic Management that gives us some new hope in an over-regulated world: the concept of Shared Space.

It may fly in the face of everyday logic to remove the traffic lights, signs, and curbside railings, but when you do, accidents decrease! This is because drivers are forced to make eye contact with each other, and with pedestrians. They use their own judgment, which turns out to be rather effective. The result is not only safer junctions, but also reduced journey times and emissions.

In Kensington, where a pilot scheme has been running, accidents are down forty-four per cent compared to a seventeen per cent average for the capital. Thousands of areas in cities worldwide have now been designated 'shared spaces'.

If this catches on, it may well be the turning point against a tide of technical, legal, and political measures that have made us dependent on external guidelines that do the thinking for us.

It's insightful to start musing on what are the metaphorical traffic lights - perhaps of our own making - that prevent us from acting in closer contact with our environment. But before exploring the implications of shared space for business, let's look, with some horror, at the incipient rise of The Measurers.

The Measurers

Numbers can be useful. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, make creative use of figures when they describe the seemingly obscene amount of money spent on a US election: around one billion dollars. They go on to point out that each and every year Americans consume chewing gum to the value of one billion dollars.

But all too often numbers are a substitute for thinking. The street logic that you can prove anything you like with statistics is exactly the reason that policy makers, corporate strategists, and politicians love to deal in them. Internet advertising has been sold on the basis of numbers of clicks on a site. Only recently has it been noticed that this is not a very accurate measure of probable consumer spending: it just measures how much clicking is going on. And some people just like to click; unfortunately for advertisers they tend to be in the lower income bracket.

The fad of measurement in business - chirpily referred to as 'the metrics' - must surely be nearing its zenith. Time after time we hear of how initiative and motivation are impaired by the need to 'make the metrics'.

When the measure become the objective, then we've really lost the plot, to paraphrase an early economist. What is the objective of education? High on most people's list would be the idea of preparing pupils for life. But what do we measure? Class sizes, catchment areas, budgets, the acquisition of basic and narrow analytical skills. Air time given to discussing these measures retards us from thinking more deeply about the true aims of education.

The measurers have won

Similarly with health. The ultimate aim of a healthcare system must be to both heal sickness and promote positive health and well-being. Measuring waiting lists, spend per patient, and a thousand other metrics deflect us from this point, encouraging a culture of box-ticking and compliance.

The measurers have won.

Let me be clear. I don't want to make numbers the bad object. It's only thanks to exact calculations that we are able to benefit from much of today's technology. It's just when this dependence on outer measures is used to tell us what and how we should be thinking that it becomes dangerous. We mistake the average for what's normal, the statistic for truth, the map for the territory.

Applications of Shared Space

Business has long pursued the dream of people empowerment. Frequently people say how much they dislike this word. I agree - so let's find another one.

Involving people is probably a more healthy descriptor of an environment where people, like the motorists at a shared space junction, realize that they can really improve their lot by using their own best judgment.

In fact, 'use your own best judgment', is the one basic instruction that employees in America's legendary department chain, Nordstrom's, receive. Naturally, this is built on top of an iceberg of intensive selection, coaching, and culture-building processes, but it should be the goal for every organization to simplify instructions down to something that inspires rather than limits the creativity of its people.

A leader who understood this concept of describing the space, and then allowed people to bring their own creative involvement to it, is former SAS chief Jan Carlzon. He said that he was only a dictator about one thing: the vision of the company. It was then up to individuals to use their initiative to realize that vision. Giving people freedom, but within a specific framework, is surely the leader's true job. As long as he or she can then let go and truly allow people to use their best judgment.

The concept of Shared Space gives us an interesting metaphor to think about questions like:

  • What are the traffic lights in your business?
  • What are the railings and guided crossing areas?
  • How can you create a culture of Shared Space where people do their own thinking, and bring more of themselves to work?

Some jobs are so circumscribed that there is no room left for personal initiative. Think of call centres where an individual can do no more than their script, frequently less efficiently than a machine. These are jobs that will no longer be with us in the future because of the inevitability of automation. 'What can be automated, will be, and sooner than we think' is the inevitable law of technological advancement. It's not surprising that some telephone operations now advertise that you can speak to an actual person as a source of competitive advantage. Sadly, I think they will remain niche players as the only real value an operative can give is their ability to empathize with the customer and reach them emotionally. When this is scripted out, your people and processes have become like stop lights.

In an age gripped by the fever to outsource, the leader's agenda must be to put in the groundwork so that people's ability to think is not also outsourced. Governments are all too often populated by ex-lawyers who believe that passing legislation solves any problem: many large companies reflect this unhelpful control-freakery. To achieve the professed dream of most organizations, which is to inspire the latent potential of its people to solve their own problems, it's necessary for leaders to simplify and distil instructions down to the bare minimum that allows people freedom to act.

So what would it mean for your teams, functions, and departments to operate with the notion of Shared Space? It doesn't just happen by saying the words - you must remove, symbolically and practically, the clutter of guidelines, job descriptions, KPIs, core competences, and other impediments that stop people from being involved and responsible for inventing a more successful future for your business.

Originally published: Tue 10 Jun 2008


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