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Should you be empowered to make business decisions on your own? The Oudehaske Dutch red light experiment may provide the answer.

Should you be empowered to make business decisions on your own? The Oudehaske Dutch red light experiment may provide the answer.

For the average tourist, the Dutch village of Oudehaske wouldn’t merit a second glance. It’s a flat, unremarkable corner of Holland without the type of canals or ‘coffee shops’ that attract visitors to nearby Amsterdam.

If however you happen to be a traffic management engineer, Oudehaske is your Mecca. It is to town planning what Benidorm is to fishbowl cocktails and STIs. It’s almost as exciting as the variable speed controls on the M25.

You see, Oudehaske was the location of a fascinating experiment in which maverick planning revolutionary (yes, there is such a thing) Hans Monderman persuaded the Dutch highways agency to remove all the road signs, traffic lights, road markings and speed limits in the town. Instead of being guided around the road grid by the usual rules and regulations, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians were instead forced to interact with each other in order to navigate the streets.

At this point the cautious among you will be shaking your heads in dismay.
‘Those crazy Dutch and their funny Continental ways!’

But actually, there was method in Monderman’s madness. As he explained: ‘When you treat people like idiots, they will behave like idiots. Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves and use their own brains.’
His vision was inspired. By removing controls and external rules he made the road network more human and instead of anarchy filling the gap left by authority, the result was fewer accidents and better traffic flow. People worked together to achieve a common goal.
This is all interesting, but what’s it got to do with Laughology, leadership, management, happiness, motivation, learning and development, I hear you ask.

Well, the point is this.

Processes and rules may well work effectively in businesses and, in many cases, are a standard requirement for getting the work done. Employees need to know what’s expected of them and how to do their jobs. However, make those processes and rules too rigid and they become constraints. They stifle innovation, initiative and creativity. While it’s important to set clear goals and responsibilities, the key to having a successful business and an engaged workforce is to empower people to make decisions on their own in the right circumstances.

Good leadership on any level – be it in commerce or government - is about allowing people to fulfil their potential through empowerment and enrichment rather than supressing them with bureaucratic systems and processes. Without the opportunity to make decisions and even to learn by failure, people are unable to develop initiative and a workforce that can’t think for itself will inevitably be left in the slow lane.

 

Tips for empowering teams to think for themselves

  • Encourage employee feedback and work on the issues which arise. Employees who see their issues addressed will feel empowered to continue making suggestions and to think about development. Communication and feedback builds trust.
  • Businesses should be transparent. Trust between employees and management is a fundamental necessity if employees are to feel confident enough to make decisions based on initiative.
  • Encourage controlled risk-taking in the right environment. Employees worried about the consequences of failure are less likely to make decisions for themselves and subsequently may require more management energies. Allowing people to fail for themselves provides them with a learning opportunity.

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