Did you know that the ubiquitous, yet humble, traffic light is 152 years old in 2020? You probably pass through at least a few of these almost every day, but how often have you seen a driver deliberately drive through a red light?
A friend commented recently that it was incredible that almost no-one questions the rules of traffic lights. They would have been a completely new idea at some point and yet now they are truly embedded across society. Most organisations would give their right arm to have that kind of success in implementing organisational change. So is there anything to be learned from traffic light design to get changes to stick?
1. Use clear and simple rules
Traffic lights have simple rules. These can be summarised as succinctly as ‘green means go and red means stop’. They also serve a clear and intuitive purpose to control the flow of traffic. Traffic lights have such a successful design that the concept is now commonly used in project and risk status reporting. Almost everyone immediately recognises and understands traffic lights despite minor variations in some countries.
Too often I’ve seen organisations (and myself been guilty of) trying to create new, overly-optimised systems. These usually end up overly-complicated and don’t make sense to users. Often it’s better to create the simple and robust 80% solution. While not perfect, the simple answers usually last longer because they have little upfront cost to implement. This makes embedding and sustaining the change more successful.
2. Make conformance both visible and enforced
Social conformance is a powerful driver of individual behaviour. Traffic lights and adherence to traffic light rules are highly visible. This creates social pressure for drivers to follow the accepted rules. These rules are also enforced by police and red-light cameras that will incur a punishment, but also risk embarrassment at being seen to be caught.
Change champions in organisations help embed change by actively and visibly supporting new ways of working. This is an indispensable tool in creating change – particularly across larger organisations. Change champions build trust that the new system works and are a key contact point to disseminate information about how the change will look and feel.
3. Build in engineering controls
One of the reasons that traffic lights are so effective is that in a line of cars it is almost physically impossible for any but the cars sitting at the lights to move forward. Being physically prevented from driving through red lights also reinforces the social cost of breaching the rules. This relies on a similar effect to engineering controls which use physical mechanisms to support work health and safety. For example, different fuel nozzle shapes for different fuels can help prevent incorrect fuel types being used in vehicles.
Removing access to an old legacy systems or document storage platform serves a similar purpose to ensure that a new document storage platform is used. Creating online-only forms that are centrally updated can prevent out-dated form templates from being used. Many similar types of controls can support organisational change to stick.
4. Apply a universal and inclusive design
Traffic lights are mostly standardised and consistent around the world. This makes it easy for individuals to learn about and understand how they work. Their visual design doesn’t require language translation and is immediately recognisable. The position of the lights provides additional information that can support colour-blind individuals to distinguish between the lights – many places also use different shapes to differentiate between the lights to make this easier.
Standard solutions increase the transferability of skills between new and departing employees and provide broad productivity benefits to organisations. Customised systems tend to be more expensive in both employee time and in ongoing maintenance and upgrades. Organisations should ideally only use non-standard approaches where there is a compelling reason to differentiate from the marketplace.
5. Consider the social contract
Driving requires training and a licence. This means that drivers have the demonstrated knowledge and ability to understand and follow the rules of traffic lights. However, if you consider pedestrian lights using similar rules the compliance with rules is much lower. This disparity partially results from the requirement for a licence, which functions as a type of explicit social contract for individuals who agree to follow the road rules to obtain and maintain their licence. Reciprocity is important in managing expectations around following a set of rules to gain the benefits of a system.
Organisations often focus on training individuals to understand changes, but do not focus enough on understanding the reciprocal contract for a change. Individuals are much more likely to support change if they need to opt-in to a system and can understand how it benefits them.
There you have it – five simple yet effective methods to support successfully embedding changes in organisations. Maybe you’ll pay more attention to that humble traffic light on your next trip.
 There is extensive academic literature on the theory of social contracts and the importance of reciprocity. As examples: Timothy Besley, ‘State Capacity, Reciprocity and the Social Contract’ (2019); Joseph Conrad, ‘The Social License to Operate and Social Contract Theory Themes and Relations of Two Concepts–A Literature Analysis’ (2018); and Adam Oliver, ‘Reciprocity and the Art of Behavioural Public Policy’ (2019).