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Friction in Business: How To Reduce Barriers to Progress

Friday February 2, 2024

Friction in Business: How To Reduce Barriers to Progress

Friday February 2, 2024

Group of three stressed employees frustratedly trying to problem-solve around a whiteboard

Friction has a negative connotation in the workplace. When something gets in the way of speed or efficiency, it’s a significant source of frustration.

Leaders often strive to reduce or eliminate friction from their processes. However, in addition to fighting friction, the best leaders seek to leverage it to make the wrong things harder as well as the right things easier.

In our webinar, How Great Leaders Fix Things, Stanford Professor and organizational psychologist Bob Sutton discussed the concept of friction in business, along with Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, and two prominent business leaders.

Here’s an overview of friction in business, and how it can be fought and leveraged.

What Is Organizational Friction?

Before attempting to fight friction, it’s necessary to understand what it actually means.

“Organizational friction is when an individual or a team tries to get something done, and it’s slower, more difficult, and more frustrating than they might hope,” says Sutton in How Great Leaders Fix Things.

In short, organizational friction is when things are harder and slower than they could be.

For example, when your email inbox is crowded with a plethora of newsletters, promotional offers, and automated updates from tools such as Google Drive, it can be difficult to locate important emails from colleagues. In this case, creating a filter for different email domains and sorting them automatically into labeled folders can reduce this friction.

Is Friction Always a Bad Thing?

As mentioned above, friction typically has a negative connotation. It’s perceived as something that ought to be eliminated in order to improve organizational speed and efficiency.

Sometimes, however, doing the right thing means making the wrong things harder. According to Sutton in How Great Leaders Fix Things, “Sometimes you’ve got to slow [your team] down to make sure they do it right before they rush off and do something stupid.”

Bob Sutton and his co-author, Huggy Rao, recently wrote a book on organizational friction called The Friction Project. According to their book, leaders should aspire to be “friction fixers,” in order to optimize their team’s creativity and prevent burnout.

This requires leaders to be “trustees of others’ time,” optimizing employees’ time instead of filling it with meetings and tasks that don’t contribute meaningfully to their work.

Part of this involves identifying areas where employees should have an easier time completing their tasks quickly, and where they should slow down to ensure they’re doing things the right way. This is where “good friction” comes into play.

The Difference Between “Bad” and “Good Friction”

Bad Friction

Bad friction is something that every organization struggles with to some capacity. Processes that unnecessarily hinder efficiency are fairly common in any company.

In their book The Friction Project, authors Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao highlight some of the biggest friction challenges in an organization.

These include:

  • Oblivious leaders: Leaders who aren’t aware of the impact their words and actions have on employees.
  • Addition sickness: Trying to improve processes by finding areas where things can be added, rather than subtracted.
  • Broken connections: People refuse to give others important information because they’re too busy, or simply don’t like the other person.
  • Jargon monoxide: Excessive use of complicated jargon and industry-specific terminology that often goes over peoples’ heads.
  • Fast and frenzied people and teams: Prioritizing speed over all else, or attempting to gain the first-mover advantage without taking time to ensure quality.

This can be especially difficult when companies are scaling. As they hire more employees and increase the number of customers they serve, existing processes are likely to break, and systems that were previously accomplished manually may need to be automated.

Good Friction

As important as efficiency is, it’s also just as important to slow down when necessary.

“Sometimes friction is needed,” says Pat Wadors, Chief People Officer at UKG in How Great Leaders Fix Things. “You’ve got to slow your role a bit to make sure you’re getting the most diverse thoughts and rigor in your thinking before you execute, because it impacts people’s lives.”

If you’re making a decision that impacts others’ lives, or that can’t be easily undone, it’s best to take the extra time to make sure it’s done well, rather than hurrying to just get it done.
According to Amy Edmondson in How Great Leaders Fix Things, “[Good friction] is about pausing to think through what it will take to ensure the coordinated execution in pursuit of performance that we need, rather than ‘let’s just see what happens.’”

Some ways you can implement this type of friction at work include:

  • False constraints: Put friction in place during brainstorming sessions in the form of false constraints such as money, time, resources, etc. This can help facilitate creativity, helping your team think outside the box.
  • Using good friction to remove bad friction: If there’s a process that’s wasteful or overused, consider implementing friction to make that process more difficult so that time can be spent on more productive activities.
  • Being intentional about irreversible decisions: Take time to slow down before making a decision that impacts others’ lives.

“I like putting in constraints—time, resources, budget—to create tension in the room, and to have us think more creatively of solving the problem for the longer term,” says Wadors in How Great Leaders Fix Things. “Through these tension and friction conversations, I can pivot more readily when that real challenge comes into play. And I think that’s a huge gift of tension and friction.”
Identifying Where to Remove—Or Add—Friction

If you’re hoping to become a better friction fixer, it’s important to be able to identify where friction should be added or removed.

Here are five questions that Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao recommend leaders ask to help determine whether friction should be eliminated or leveraged:

  1. How much uncertainty does the task involve? When encountering tasks that involve significant uncertainty, it’s often best to slow down and assess the situation before acting rashly. Is this reversible—a two-way decision—or reversible—a one-way decision?
  2. Is the task routine or creative? Routine work should often be as frictionless as possible, but attempting to expedite or streamline creativity may ultimately hinder it. Successful creativity is often accompanied by a multitude of failures.
  3. Does success require speed or learning from others’ mistakes? Speed isn’t always your friend. Even when launching a new venture, first-movers often aren’t successful if consumers aren’t ready for their product or they haven’t done sufficient market research.
  4. Does your team have the capacity, or are they burnt out? Sometimes, overuse of digital tools intended to improve efficiency can result in frustration and confusion from employees, resulting in burnout.
  5. Do you want relationships to be fast or deep? In some cases, such as commercial airlines or emergency departments, forming quick relationships and working with a team of strangers is necessary. However, the deepest relationships take time and intentionality.

In short, friction fixers should make sure they’re effectively making the right things easier, but also placing constraints and barriers in place to prevent poor or hasty decision-making.

Reduce Barriers to Progress With Teamraderie

According to Bob Sutton in How Great Leaders Fix Things, “Greatness comes from the nuts and bolts of management and organizational design.”

If you’re hoping to improve your leadership, remove friction in your organization, and help your team thrive, consider our Team Journey, Improve Organizational Speed. This Journey, co-created with Bob Sutton, will help your team learn how to make the right things easier and the wrong things harder.

Want to learn more about friction in business? Sign up for Leadership Lab to watch our entire conversation with Bob Sutton and Amy Edmondson, as well as additional webinars with thought-leaders and resources to help you become a better manager.

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