Facilitating change: Four lessons from the devolution of the British roundabout

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

The devolution of the British roundabout
I grew up in England, where roundabouts are more common than traffic lights as a way of routing traffic. (Fun fact: the first roundabout in the world was built in Hertfordshire, England in the early 1900’s.) When I was a kid, roundabouts were walled constructions in the center of traffic circles that looked like this:

In the 1960’s, the Brits realized that such elaborate constructions were overkill, and roundabouts became more like this:

As time went on, roundabout design was simplified further to this minimalist design:

These so-called mini-roundabouts could be made smaller than previous versions because they allowed the rear wheels of large vehicles to drive over the edge of the central circle when making tight turns.

While in London last year I saw the most recent evolution of the British roundabout. The physical barrier of the central island has completely disappeared, and the roundabout has just become a simple painted circle, with directional arrows painted on the road surface.


Four lessons we can learn about facilitating change from this brief history of the British roundabout
When we are facilitating a desired change, we need to communicate clearly the change we want to make.
Think about what would have happened if the plain white circle roundabout was introduced as the initial replacement for the street intersections that human cultures have used for thousands of years. People would not have understood how it was supposed to function. Without a physical barrier forcing a circular route, drivers would have been tempted to drive straight across it. The first roundabout design had to impose a fundamentally different way of navigating intersections; otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.

It’s easier to facilitate change in small increments than in large leaps.
By the time the plain white circle roundabout was introduced, the concept of driving around, rather than through, circular objects placed at the center of intersections had been imprinted on the British drivers’ psyche. The final design is quite different from the elaborate early roundabouts, but it was reached through a series of incremental design refinements.

Change is attractive if the new situation has advantages.
Each change in the design of the British roundabout created advantages for the builders (less expensive), environment (less space wasted at intersections), and users (more space to negotiate the intersection). While the promise of an improved outcome does not guarantee that a change will occur, it certainly can’t hurt.

Different cultures can have very different approaches to change
If you’re not British, your experience of roundabouts will be different; you may not even know what a roundabout is! In the United States, roundabouts only started appearing in the 1990’s (rotaries and traffic circles employ different rules). Other European countries have their own roundabout designs and unique histories of introduction. Don’t assume that a change that has worked for one culture will be acceptable to another. (A corollary to this lesson is that exploring other cultures is a wonderful way to have your eyes opened to aspects of your culture that you take for granted.)

Are there other lessons we can learn from the British roundabout? What other design evolutions can you think of that teach lessons about facilitating change?

How do you facilitate change?

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we’ll explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

The peer conferences I run are extremely effective at catalyzing change, both in the people who participate in them and the organizations that run them. Why is this?

Many people think that we can make change happen by presenting logical reasons why the change should be made.

Many people are wrong.

Here are John Kotter’s & Dan Cohen’s findings about implementing change, as described by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.

In The Heart of Change, John Kotter & Dan Cohen report on a study they conducted with the help of a team at Deloitte Consulting. The project team interviewed over 400 people across more than 130 companies in the United States, Europe, Australia, and South Africa, in the hopes of understanding why change happens in large organizations…

What did they find?

…the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.

…Kotter and Cohen observed that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE but SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

This is why peer conferences are so effective at catalyzing change. The peer conference change model embraces the important role of feelings in facilitating change. Explicit ground rules that make it safe to express feelings (The Four Freedoms and group agreement on confidentiality) are key. Also important is the closing personal introspective, which provides a framework for participants to determine the changes they wish to make and uses group sharing, often emotional, to reinforce participants’ conclusions.

In fact, peer conference design implements a change model that is even broader than Kotter & Cohen’s SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

Rather than concentrating on seeing, just one of our five human senses, peer conference design facilitates and supports the sequence EXPERIENCE-FEEL-CHANGE, where EXPERIENCE includes multiple sensing modalities. Small group discussions, story telling, outdoor talk-while-walking sessions, mini-workshops, and simulations all stimulate multiple senses, providing fertile input for the emotional responses that are vital components for creating successful change.

We are driven much more by our emotions than most of us are willing to admit. Let’s recognize this, and use conference designs that, by capitalizing on this reality rather than denying it, are more effective.

How do you evoke emotions at your events? Have you found doing this to be an effective way of facilitating change?

The myth of control


Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure? One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, let me ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the semblance. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.