May 4, 2009

Mexico City traffic, vendors and self-organization

Everybody who has ever visited Mexico City for sure remembers the traffic. Think New York City traffic is bad? ...think again! A few decades ago the expressways and highways, although small for USA standards, were fast and a joy to ride. Nowadays traffic is so bad that on a recent day while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Viaducto (an expressway) I saw locals walking in between lanes selling all sorts of things, from sodas to cigarettes, chewing gum, fruit, etc.; they even had banners posted on the expressway’s walls announcing products and prices.

What amazed me the most was how efficient those people were. Keeping an eye on which lanes were moving more slowly to shift from one to the other so maximize the chances of making a sale. Monitoring the overall traffic to determine if they should step aside for a few minutes or stay put and increase sales. They are also distributed along the road so that each person has a “reasonable number of customers”. They knew intuitively that it was better to disperse along the road when cars where moving at a slow steady pace, and to get closer together but in between different lanes when cars were barely moving. I was amazed by the efficiency of their self-organization.

I started thinking about how I’ve seen development teams be less efficient when they are being managed, thus waiting for a decision-maker to come and order changes, and how much more efficient they become when they self-organize. It is better to identify the demands of task-at-hand, assess the situation, determine a course of action, and act.

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