India’s Roads and Organizational Change

Driving in Hyderabad, India is a crazy experience. There are cows, camels, dogs, and goats alongside cars, autorickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, street vendors, and pedestrians. There are no lanes in undeveloped areas, though lanes are more like street design than a requirement, even in the developed parts. Crossing over lanes, even into lanes with cars going in the opposite direction, is a common occurrence. I’ve only seen a few stoplights, manually managed by traffic cops, and no stop signs. The roads are marred by potholes, and floods during the rainy season. Street names are not the standard for navigation, but rather landmarks, i.e. “I am going to X coffee shop in Y part of town next door to Z shopping mall.” 

Because there aren’t many official rules of the road here, drivers have developed their own system. For example, there is incessant honking. In India, you honk to let a car know you are behind them, around the corner, or passing them. Blinkers aren’t too commonly used; instead many drivers will stick out their hand like a bicyclist. Or they honk. There are speed bumps everywhere to force drivers to slow down. And everyone knows how to drive badly. 

As my Indian car-driving friend put it, the roads in India are “organized chaos.” 

How would an urban planner approach work in a place like Hyderabad? If the governemnt tried to modernize the roads, how would they implement and enforce change? If more rules of the road were enforced, how would they educate the public, and would the drivers actually follow them? I frequently think about these questions while driving around the city.

Pondering these questions once during a long rickshaw ride, it struck me that organizations and managers ask these same questions in a different context.

As organizations scale, they naturally face issues of developing more formal procedures and changes in culture. The organizational culture of small staff and start-up mode—perhaps a version of “organized chaos”—changes drastically when you have a larger staff and more bureaucratic structures are put in place. The questions become: how does a manager add more formal business procedures to a start-up organization? How do you implement and enforce the changes in a sustainable way? How do you change company culture with buy-in from the staff? How do you avoid becoming too bureaucratic, and retain some of your start-up culture and organizational values? 

I don’t think any of these question have just one answer. But when I think of these questions and consider the roads in India again, I always come back to: does there need to be a change? Then I remember that India’s roads are some of the deadliest in the world, so change to some degree is a must. 

One initial conclusion I’ve come to is that when implementing change, both cities and organizations should be cognizant of what unofficial systems already exist before implementing unnecessary infrastructure and bureaucracy. Just like drivers in India have come up with their own mechanisms for rules of the road, employees do the same when they don’t have established systems in place. Therefore, don’t implement a costly project management system if employees have already made collaboration through Google docs the unofficial status quo. Likewise, if Indian drivers are already comfortable using honking as a system for announcing themselves when turning a corner, maybe Hyderabad doesn’t need a wide-scale, costly implementation of stop signs on every road. Using existing systems, when possible, does not waste resources, and prevents the difficulties that arise with cultural change. 

What do you think? 

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