Paris Posts #2: Who Has the Right of Way

The massive roundabout encircling the Arc D' Triomphe in central Paris contains almost a dozen side streets that feed into it like spokes on a wheel and the circle itself is several lanes of traffic wide ... not that there are actual lanes, of course.

Almost always packed with traffic, the roundabout is a lesson in self-organization as hundreds of cars, motorcycles, and a few bikes engage in an ongoing "dance with death" though few accidents seem to happen.

Observing this dance for almost an hour, I was most surprised to realize that instead of waiting patiently to slowly enter the roundabout, most of the cars on side streets barreled in at a fairly fast pace, diagonally bisecting the circle until they became a part of the masses. Those already in motion on the circle generally were the ones yielding to the newcomers.

It got me thinking about organizational culture. Existing staff members or volunteers are already in motion, but we regular bring newcomers into the fold. In most organizations those newcomers behave as I expected the cars in Paris would: they patiently observe those already working, try to learn the rules of the road, and then tentatively enter into the conversation or activity, almost always with at least a touch of deference to the existing players. Yes, some assertive individuals jump in and participate fully right away, but generally they are the exception and not the norm.

But what if that wasn't the case? What if new staff and volunteers sped right into the center of things much as the motorists in Paris do as they enter the roundabout? What if existing staff members and volunteers understood they were to the ones to yield to new ideas and fresh perspectives? The end result might look as messy as traffic does all day long around the Arc d' Triomphe, but the results produced might be far more compelling and well worth the confusion which might ensue.


Dave Coriale said...

This is why I read this blog - only you would see a traffic circle and give us this great metaphor about how new members/staff become engaged with the organization.

I live near a traffic circle on Connecticut Ave at the MD/DC border and it's always a danger because the traffic in the circle has the right away in Maryland. However, in some other states or cities the traffic entering the circle has the right away - so as you are rounding my circle you practically have to do an on-the-fly inventory of those approaching the circle to decide if they are going to come barreling in or if they know the local rules.

It would be funny to give new staff/members some type of color coded dot on their name tag/membership record/etc… to identify which 'state' they are from - are they NJ where the traffic in the circle yields to the incoming cars or MD where the incoming traffic yields to the cars in motion?

Maddie Grant said...

This is a great post! I had a similar though on my blog ( but did not express it nearly so well...