How Great Leaders Use Friction to Make Things Easier

Three people sitting around a table at a meeting.

 

At its worst, friction can be a destructive force in an organization. Friction can undermine productivity and innovation, create inefficiency, and even chip away at our energy and enthusiasm for work.

But what if friction could be reframed as something positive—something that makes the right things, like joy, productivity, and creative thinking, easier?

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, organizational psychologist and New York Times best selling author Bob Sutton discusses how great leaders use friction to make the right things easier and the wrong things harder. He covers what a friction fixer is, different types of destructive friction and how they show up in organizations, how leaders reframe friction so that it’s productive rather than destructive, and tools and activities that leaders can employ to become a friction fixer.

 

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts 

 

 

JUMP TO SECTION

What is Friction?

Good vs. Bad Friction

How to Be a Friction Fixer

Tools to Combat Friction

Key Moments for Friction

 

What is Friction?

According to Bob, friction is essentially the feeling that things are harder to do than they ought to be. It exists in every organization, especially as they get larger, older, and more complex. While researching for his book The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder, Bob heard many people say they were surrounded by frustrations caused by friction—for example, having expense reimbursements bounce back multiple times without any explanation, which can create a lot of frustration and wasted time.

However, through his work and research with companies, Bob learned two things: first, that it’s possible to fight back and create solutions to friction, and second, that in some cases friction can be a good thing.

 


“Whether you’re the CEO of a large company or a frontline employee, we all have a cone of friction. We have the ability to make things harder or easier for other people.”
Bob Sutton, Organizational Psychologist and New York Times Bestselling Author


 

 

Good vs. Bad Friction

What is good or bad friction? It often depends on the nature of the craft that you're engaged in. For example, in emergencies when you need to act quickly, friction can slow things down in a way that’s disadvantageous.

However, Bob says that there are many times in life when friction can be helpful to slow down and figure out what’s going on, rather than rushing off in the wrong direction. Some of the best teams are the ones that can sense when things are messed up and know when to stop and spend more time looking into issues.

Bob gives the analogy of race car drivers—the ones who get around the track the fastest are the ones who know when to brake and when to take a pit stop.


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How to Be a Friction Fixer

Bob says that whether you're the CEO of a large company or you're a frontline employee, we all have a “cone of friction,” or sphere of influence that influences friction. This means that we have the ability to make things harder or easier for other people. If an executive sends frequent, overly long emails, that is a cone of friction that can slow down thousands of people.

One example that Bob gives is the Department of Motor Vehicles, a place you go to to do things like register your vehicle and take your driving test. While Bob typically dreads going there, he found himself having a great experience during one specific visit because there was a frontline supervisor who took it upon himself to walk up and down the line and ask each person why they were there. Afterward, some people realized that they didn’t need to wait in line, and others realized they could just fill out a form instead.

Within his cone of friction, the supervisor was able to be a “friction fixer” and make the experience better for everyone standing in line. By seeing himself as a trustee of other people’s time, he was able to save time and energy for others.

One of Bob’s favorite examples of friction fixing is Michigan’s government benefits form, which two and a half million people fill out each year. In 2015, if you needed to receive food, health insurance, or unemployment, you would need to fill out a form that was 42 pages long. Then, Michael Brennan and his team at Civilla spent a couple of years going through the existing process, developing six prototypes, and creating a new form that was 80% shorter. It complied with the rules and regulations of the state, was rolled out to thousands of employees, and reduced an enormous amount of friction.

 

Tools to Combat Friction

One tool that Bob suggests to combat friction is called subtraction. He describes “addition sickness” as the tendency for organizations and people to solve problems by adding more. Bob points to research done by Leidy Klotz in his book Subtract, which showed that when people are given chores, from planning a vacation to revising a recipe, the standard solution that humans apply to almost any problem is by making it more complex.

In one experiment, where the best way to improve a Lego model was to remove two or three pieces, and people were even charged for adding more pieces, the default solution people would use would be to add four or five pieces.

This also shows up in organizational life, as managers get paid more to have more people reporting to them. It creates an incentive for organizations and teams to grow and expand. But addition can lead to more rules and regulations, which then creates more friction.

The Subtraction Game

As an exercise in subtraction, Bob says to first identify what's driving you crazy in your workplace. Then, pick something that's feasible to subtract, plus something that would be wild.

An example of a feasible idea that Bob shares is from a management team at a large software company. They typically have a weekly senior team meeting, but they subtracted and changed the meeting to once every two weeks. Another team was frustrated by the number of Slack messages sent and decided to make a collective pledge to reduce messages by 25% in the next week. Examples of wild ideas that Bob has heard is to abolish an entire department, or to get rid of pay differences and pay everybody in the company the exact same amount.

 


“Friction is essentially that feeling that things are harder to do than they ought to be.”
Bob Sutton, Organizational Psychologist and New York Times Bestselling Author


 

 

Key Moments for Friction

One of the key moments to address friction is at the beginning. Bob cites the research of his mentor J. Richard Hackman, who studied what makes teams more or less effective and found that beginnings are important because that's where you have the initial design of a system—figuring out who's in what roles, what the norms are, how resources will be spent, and what the goals are. Bob says that a team charter can be helpful to refer back to. Additionally, prototyping can be useful to have something tangible to riff off of, tweak, and improve.

Another key moment for friction is at the end. It’s important to take time to end things right, because people don’t know a project has ended otherwise. Bob mentions the research of Daniel Kahneman, who says that there is a peak and end rule. This rule says that when people look back on an experience, there are two parts that matter the most: the peak, or best/worst part of the experience, and the way it ends.

Oftentimes, people jump into making a to-do list of what they’re going to do next, before they’ve even finished what they’re working on. Instead, one way to savor endings is to create a “tada list” at the end of the day or end of a project, where you as an individual or team pursue and reflect on what happened, both good and bad.


About the Speaker

Bob Sutton
Organizational Psychologist, Stanford Faculty, New York Times Bestselling Author

Bob Sutton studies leadership, organizational change, innovation, scaling, and workplace dynamics. At Stanford, he is Professor of Management Science and Engineering (emeritus) and a faculty fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He co-founded the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, Institute of Design (“the d school”), and Center for Work, Technology, and Organization.

Sutton has published over 200 articles in academic and popular outlets and authored eight books. His books include"Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense" (with Jeff Pfeffer), selected by the Toronto Globe and Mail as the best business book of 2006; "The Knowing-Doing Gap" (with Pfeffer) was chosen for Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten’s "100 Best Business Books of All Time”; and most recently, the “The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder” which launched January 30th, 2024.


If you want to learn more about how to tackle complex challenges on your team, check out our new course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.


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