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What Traffic Intersections Say About Your Management Style

October 4, 2017

Article formerly published by CarDash. The ideas and opinions presented in this article are solely those of CarDash and do not reflect the ideas and opinions of RepairSmith.

Interview questions are often bland and predictable, and I always look for ways to better reveal the mindset and thought process of those I interview.

The traffic intersection question is one I like to ask during some management interviews. I have found it to provide insight into one’s management style because what the question may reveal a deeper level of thinking. I’ll explain its significance in a moment. For now, let’s get to the question.

Say you have three types of intersections; a roundabout, a four way stop sign, and one managed by a full time traffic officer.

The question is:

Which intersection style will generate the most throughput?

There are three assumptions in the scenario:

This is not a trick question nor meant to measure one’s ability to analyze complex problems. It is intended to reveal how one instinctively thinks about systems and people, and therefore why one picks a certain system is more important than what system they picked.

Spoiler: The technically correct answer is at the bottom of the post, but the thought process is more important than the numerical answer.

System A: The Decentralized Manager

This person believes in providing broad guidance and then decentralizing operations and delegating responsibility to those nearest to the problem at hand.

Why?

Each individual driver is expected to make their own decision on when and how fast to enter the roundabout. There are minimal rules provided and most decision making is delegated to the members of the system. A person who picks System A therefore likely believes that an organization will thrive when those closest to the problem are empowered to make decisions for themselves and accepts some overall risk in return for a potential increase in performance. They believe that systems function better when individuals own more of their own risk analysis and fewer restrictions are put in place.

System B: The Rules Based Manager

This person believes in creating strict rules and boundaries to reduce risk.

Why?

The four way stop sign intersection creates an unambiguous environment. The rules are simple and the decision making left to the driver is slim; perhaps how long of a stop is appropriate and what to do when multiple cars arrive at a stop sign at once. Each driver knows exactly what is expected of them and the system eliminates independent decision making and initiative through strict safeguards.

System C: The Authoritarian Manager

This person believes in centralizing decision making as the best way to manage an organization.

Why?

While the four way stop sign intersection took away most driver decision making, the traffic cop takes away all decision making and puts it in the hands of a central authority figure. Drivers coming up to the intersection have absolutely no thinking to do on their own other than to comply with the orders being given to them. A person who would prefers this system would believe in the virtue of both centralized planning and execution.

Is one system always the right answer?

No. From a management perspective, there actually is no absolutely right answer. Different management styles are needed for different types of situations and different types of companies.

For example, if one is managing an oil rig in the Mexican Gulf, you may want some System B or even System C type managers to reduce risk. If you want somebody managing a fluid environment and you encourage people in your organization to make independent decisions and assume some risk, you almost certainly want a System A person.

The importance here is to be honest about one’s own management style and to acknowledge those philosophical differences.

Wait, but these are just traffic intersections. How can you read so much into them?

Clearly just choosing System A, B, or C, does not mean your entire management style is boxed into one of the above descriptions. The most important component of a person’s answer is the why, not the answer itself. It is also of course just one data point to consider out of many.