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What Roundabouts Teach Us About Change Management


I was watching my favorite philosopher, Homer Simpson, on TV the other day in the episode where he gets stuck on a roundabout in London. In attempting to get out, he rear-ends the Queen's carriage. Ha, Ha, I laughed - that's why roundabouts are such a bad idea. I'm glad they're not popular here in the US. But then it struck me that I equally hated how traffic lights were starting to sprout up on every little intersection in the small town where I live in Cincinnati. They are replacing even two-way stop signs, ostensibly to make the intersection safer for the occasionally sighted cars around here (i.e. there's not much traffic). I find them frustrating because they result in stop-and-go driving as you wait every few feet for the next light.

Are roundabouts that bad after all? What I learned blew my mind. And, also gave me a few insights on change management for digital transformation.

Au contraire, my furry little friend (as they say:-)), we could use more roundabouts in the US

The US has 300,000 traffic signals. 50% of all fatal or injury crashes happen at or near a traffic light. Studies have shown that roundabouts are actually much safer. They result in 38% fewer accidents and up to 90% fewer injuries or fatalities! But ah! that's what you'd get because traffic would slow down to a standstill, I thought cynically. Not true. As it turns out, modern roundabouts increase traffic flow by reducing traffic delays by 65-89 percent.

That got me thinking. This just didn't add up. So, modern roundabouts are safer, more efficient on traffic, they are 5K-10K dollars cheaper to maintain per intersection per year and have a smaller carbon foot-print. Why do we have only 4000 roundabouts in the US vs. 300,000 signals?

Why does the US hate roundabouts?
The answer to all these questions has more to do with change resistance than hard facts. Roundabouts undoubtedly have a negative equity in the US. Memories of Clark Griswold circling forever around roundabouts in the Chevy Chase movie "National Lampoon's European Vacation" may have actually shaped US perception.
Understandably, change management lessons from roundabouts in the US can also generate insights for digital transformation. 

1. Language gets in the way: As it turns out, not all roundabouts are equal. In the US, traffic circles started showing up in the early 1900s. New York's Columbus Circle, installed in 1905, was the country's first traffic circle. Soon other traffic circles showed up over the country, only to lead to a mess. Traffic circle design was such that motorists sped into the circle without any yield signs or stops before the circle. Accidents skyrocketed. The version of roundabouts used today is called the "Modern Roundabout". It is drastically safer. Digital transformation has a similar language issue. It's a fuzzy term that means too many different things. We need to force precise language, as I try to do with the 5-stage digital transformation model in my book. When you're clear about what you're talking about, the chances of achieving it go up dramatically.
2. Legacy replacement is hard: The small town of Carmel, Indiana has 125 roundabouts, which is 3% of all the roundabouts in the US. It turns out that a previous Mayor of the town, Jim Brainard, had done a graduate school trip to England and came away with great experiences of the safety and efficiency of the modern roundabout. Legacy replacement comes in different forms. There's legacy systems (e.g. traffic grid in Manhattan) and there's legacy people (e.g. leaders who tend to lean towards installing traffic lights at new intersections as opposed to defaulting to roundabouts). Between these two, the issue of "legacy" people may be the more important one. This is true of digital transformation as well. The more we have leaders exposed to new possibilities, the better the chance of their internalizing the possibilities.
3. Culture change must be taken head-on: In towns where traffic signals were replaced by roundabouts, surveys showed that people had only 30% approval of roundabouts before the installation and 50-70% approval after. Relying on poll numbers alone before installation would have been a mistake. Leaders who rely on employee opinions alone to make decisions, as opposed to proactively shaping beliefs, miss the opportunity to lead change.

In closing:

Look, digital transformation isn't a panacea for all enterprise strategy problems. Just as roundabouts aren't a panacea for all traffic problems. Roundabouts would be a bad idea in certain intersections in Manhattan, Cairo, Lagos and Mumbai. But they are an inevitable common-sense strategy for most cities in the US. It's change resistance that gets in the way.
Similarly, there's a lot of reasons why digital transformation is known to be 90% a change management issue and 10% a technology issue. The fuzzy language is a challenge. Organizations have long memories of expensive technology projects gone bad. And, "legacy" people need to be brought around.

Ultimately, that's what bold change leadership is all about. It's about firmly locking-in the right end-state based on data, and creatively applying of the art of change management in execution. Stay firm on the right end-goal, and be flexible on how you tackle change resistance. If you do, your transformation story will see a happy ending. Just as Homer Simpson's British vacation story did. (Spoiler alert - he escapes from the Tower of London, and avoids being executed. However, his escape from the Tower goes wrong and ..... Ah, forget it! Just watch the episode.)

Go forth and transform.



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