Self-organisation at the Post Office
Over the Christmas period I had one of those moments that make your heart drop into your stomach.
I had missed a delivery and got a card saying that I needed to collect my parcel from the main sorting office.
Even worse, there is no car park at our sorting office and so you have to leave your car on double yellow lines and risk getting a ticket. Plus it’s always busy. When I turned up I couldn’t actually tell where the end of the queue was because it had snaked around the small office.
Instead of asking (too much social embarrassment) I went to where I logically assumed the end of the queue would be:
Apparently though the people had self-organised and the queue had formed in the way depicted in the image below, hence I was told I was “skipping the line” – a mortal sin in the UK. Cue social embarrassment somewhat lessened by the failure bow I offered.
Everybody who turned up after me had to enquire about where the end of the line was and (when informed) there was a collection of common responses usually including a sarcastic “well, of course!”, and a “I have no idea why but there you go” to the “it’s ridiculous but hey”.
At one point I turned to the room and dropped a metaphorical bomb by suggesting that there might be an easier way to make this more intuitive. I was met with a set of faces that showed emotions including fear, confusion, incredulity and skepticism among others. My suggestion was that “if those in the middle switched with those against the far wall then the queue would form a more intuitive s-shape”.
A couple of people replied with “that’s a good idea” and looked around.
When they looked around they saw a few people nodding in agreement and a few looking at the floor. But nobody did anything. I replied with a jokey comment along the lines of “Of course, it doesn’t bother me because I will be gone shortly” – I was at position 1.
In retrospect I wondered what was happening here and I think it is a combination of two things:
- Social awkwardness.
As everyone in the room was a stranger, there was no history or connection upon which the group could draw to make the change. Asking strangers to do something (move position) is awkward – some would joke this is even more so in Britain and cultural differences do play a part here – and so I think many people thought “this is too awkward for me to bother”. Because nobody was in charge there is a fear that stepping in and taking charge would be perceived negatively and so this was avoided.
Another thought that unconsciously crossed people’s minds was “this imperfect system is tolerable and, actually, the most uncomfortable part for me (turning up and not knowing where the end of the line is) has passed” so I can’t be bothered to change the system.
In this situation, everyone acknowledged that the system was flawed and there was a better way. A simple way of solving the situation was put forward but still it was not acted upon. I believe this is because the “cost” of making the change outweighed the “benefit”.
I have done a few talks on the “change equation” when coaching others to change. If you are interested in it you can see one of the videos here.
Feel free to tweet me @geoffcwatts with your thoughts or tales of similar experiences.