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Eric Carlson
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We can learn a lot about compliance from road signs (seriously)

To a 19th Century “man on the street,” a road was a place not just to move but also to gather. It was common space that belonged to everyone. Like how we think today about our parks. There was only one rule: you weren’t allowed to get in anybody’s way, and no one was allowed to get in yours.

Police had no legal authority over traffic. They were only there to facilitate the informal problem solving that made roads function without regulation. See an oncoming carriage? Make some eye contact with the driver (or horses) and work out a solution to any conflict in your path.

But then everything changed. Along came a crazy new invention: the car. It was fast. Too fast, in fact, to allow for this informal problem solving that had kept road-goers safe and moving for centuries. There was no time for eye contact. If you needed to ask someone to stop, yelling wouldn’t work. You’d need to give them a signal they could see from far enough away.

And so the struggle for the streets began. How to find a way to allow both people and cars to stay safe?

It wasn’t an easy change. The pragmatist in London who first proposed the concept of a yield sign was, quite literally, laughed out of the building. A red light? That’s preposterous and illegal. A speed limit? Hahaha.

But necessity is the mother of invention. And changing the concept of roads was driven by the people using the roads, not by the police or the politicians.

 

Traffic signals were originally implemented to instruct police officers. When it was red, police knew to direct drivers to stop. When green, police knew they were supposed to lower their hands and let motorists continue on their way.

But this system was too slow. People had deliveries to make, documents to sign, and lunches to get to. They cut out the middleman (the police officer), and started watching the lights instead. Anything to gain a small advantage over other drivers.

How is all this relevant to today’s compliance professionals?

Compliance pros often feel like they’re stuck in the middle of a busy intersection. The commercial folks around them view the compliance function as just a way to slow things down. The Department of No. Always getting in the way, and generally making life more difficult than it needs to be.

But like those using today’s well-regulated roads, the vast majority of people in companies want to be safe. When they understand that the compliance department can help provide that safety, things change. So for compliance pros, the battle is not only a regulatory and legal one, it’s also for hearts and minds.

Have you been laughed out of a room because you suggested a compliance “yield” sign? Don’t worry, the world is still a bit behind. But it’ll catch up.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this one. A great diversion from the daily news! Reminds me of a thought experiment a group of us went through many years ago on the future of compliance, and we wondered whether, as we succeeded in creating a true culture of compliance, we would no longer be needed, like the police officers at intersections.

  2. Yes and as mentioned in the comment above, many thanks for this welcome diversion! I often compare operationalization of compliance with road signs and driving rules. One can have a great level of personal ethics and integrity and have read the rule book once very thoroughly in your life, nothing will be more helpful to us all than traffic lights and signs to know what to do at a given point in time!


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