The interwebs offers three definitions of the term friction:

  1. The resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another.

  2. The action of one surface or object rubbing against another.

  3. Conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions.

I want to rephrase and examine it as the base term of “resistance to fluid motion” and apply it at an organizational level. Are we aware of it, what strategies can we apply to it and why it may exist.

What brought me to this topic? Very simple. Home repair.

My better half asked me to disassemble something for removal to the dump. Tools in hand I approached the task only to find that the bolts with which the item was put together had become rather fused through years of usage (and possibly over tightening to begin with). So I struggled. I strained. I tried to focus the inner superhero inside of myself to well up enough adrenaline to move this immobile object.

Nothing. I tried and tried and made no headway. I dropped tools, I cursed the item and even began to question and lament my own physical strength to being the reason I could not get this task done. I was exacerbated, exhausted, frustrated and felt the task was not only ridiculous but even a little resentment for being asked to even do this. In a huff of lack of progress, I walked away from this activity to sulk over the lack of progress.

My wife, being caring and trying to be supportive asked me “how’s it coming”?

A status report? Really? That was not the best time as you can imagine. This resulting in a re-telling of the epic battle of “man vs. bolt” in which the end result was man was laid to waste in the shadow of the all-mighty power of the impenetrable bolt. This story was told with the flair of a new Star Wars movie complete with arm gestures, sound effects and emotions ending with a culmination of “I suck at tools”.

Continuing to be supportive she listened patiently and allowed me to regale her with the tale of the mighty bolt to which she said encouragingly, “I know you. You’ll figure it out”.

I shrugged, grabbed an ice cold refreshment and sat in my chair to mull over my defeat.

As I sat, I began to think more and more about the situation. What would my dad have done? He was the consummate master of all things tool and repair related. If you needed a tool, he had it. If you were unsure how to approach a problem, he could envision the solution. It always seemed like he just “did it” with far more ease than I could ever do.

One thing he taught me about tools (although a lot did not stick) was “son, always have the right tool to get the job done”. I had the right physical tools. But I recalled a similar situation when we were working to replace an alternator on a car. He reached on the shelf and grabbed something and BAM the bolt magically loosened. I remembered him telling me that “sometimes when you hit bolt resistance, they just need a little lubricant”.

Eureka! I sprang from chair, grabbed the can I had in the garage, sprayed the bolt and within 30 minutes the item was disassembled. I strutted proudly back into the office announcing “all done” to which I received the adulation of the conquering hero of the dreaded bolt! But what did I really do? I applied the same tools and the same strategy as before but with one difference, I reduced the amount of resistance. I eased the friction and as a result, I saw immediate value.

This got me to thinking … what is that magic spray that I might be able to apply to organizational stickage or organizational friction?

Friction within Organizations

The prior story took a long way to get us here, however, I wanted to share the levels of physical and emotional impact that the inability to overcome this simple case of resistance took on me personally.

Organizational friction is not unsimilar. When we as a member of an organization hit a point that impedes our progress to an end goal, we almost immediately (as we are wired by the human condition) enter a “fight or flight” mode. We either become frustrated and angry at the process/person that is stopping the progress or we back away in frustration to brood/complain to others or just sulk about the situation. We experience feelings not uncommon to the same way I felt when I encountered the physical resistance of that bolt.

I think if you can stop for a moment, you can probably easily identify your own areas of “organizational friction”. As I sat and thought about this, I identified a few broad areas that seemed to be good indicators for a potential for organizational friction:

  • Exchanges between siloed functional areas that although they may work together are relatively autonomous in their process and function.
  • Exchanges between groups that have deeply ingrained and conflicting work culture or deeply defined organizational missions, sometimes in opposition.
  • Interactions between groups that typically work together and therefore have processes and or policies that may be heavy to one another.

Can’t you just loosen the processes?

This seems a natural “kneejerk” reaction when one encounters something they feel is stringent. However, this like my first experience cooking with natural ginger root. I just cut off a block to season my dish and in the end it was all I could taste. The key is remaining “value focused” and applying just the right amount to meet the need (just like ginger root) when approaching adjustments due to friction. And just like my cooking experience, you can make one’s self “gun shy” to the experience if a bad outcome is had in your first experiment.

Using the historical perspective of a “moment in time” bad experience often means we can end up creating process around a “people problem” as opposed to a “process problem”.

A natural “knee jerk” reaction is to shun all process as we believe that is the core issue to the problem at hand. Sometimes a process can actually be problematic but I am a fan of always inspecting how you work s opposed to abandoning something merely because and . Sometimes abandonment is the right thing to do as circumstances have changed or the world around us has shifted.

Too many times I see people stop asking if the new and progressive process that they created still works for the organization at hand. They lie dormant on a shelf only to be pulled out and dusted off to clarify a situation.

Couldn’t it be more productive for review of these things and see where improvements can be made and ensure that we are not optimizing the past for the sake of having a process in place? I guess my opinion is that as often painful as it is to implement a process change, doing so without regular intervals of effectiveness creates future pain.

The “invisible process”

I worked for a company once that when I asked about a specific situation or implementation, I received the same canned response “that’s our policy”. I recall receiving this response over and over again when inquiring about everything from organizational change to aesthetics of page design. So one day, being the curious sort I am, I asked “may I see these policies and processes”?

This was met with a lot of back peddling at which time I was told these were “accepted practice” of the business. I pressed on this issue and asked how we held employees accountable to these ideals if they were not available for them to be aware. I was told that each employee was deeply versed in these when hired (which struck me as odd as most of the requests were based upon questions I received from a team for which I was the lead).

But what the organization had done had insulated itself by creating these invisible processes and calling them “standard practice”. This allowed them to deflect items in which they sought not to address through their quote as needed. I worked very hard with this organization to see the value of the transparency of these processes and utilize the strength and creativity of their staff to determine which invisible practices may actually be hurting them either through overall credibility or staff confusion.

If you find that your organization has “accepted practice”, increase the visibility. Communicate them so that they can be inspected like any other process. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a way in which you work but doing so without a mechanism to communicate understanding internally and externally can be problematic.

So how do I combat organizational friction?

  1. Realize it potentially exists. An organization is a complex system of moving parts and as so local edicts which may impact those outside the group may result in friction. Don’t bury your head into the sand over this fact.
  2. Be as transparent as possible. Shy away from not having a communication channel in the way you work. In the book Traction, one mechanism is indicated as creating your organizational “way” of how you conduct the function you do. But be mindful here. These cannot live in a vacuum, you must regular revisit this to know if you are a) working as you state you do for organizational accountability and b)ensure you are effectively communicating how things change over time.
  3. Make a cultural shift to being one of a problem solving organization. Create a culture in which across your organization you get the affected people in the room so you can 1) ensure that there is good alignment between affected groups and they shift from a culture of “doing my part” to one of seeing the end goal as a whole and 2) create a culture of “shared understanding” which develops people to not necessarily understand the depth of another domain but gives them context to the pains and end goals of the various groups involved.
  4. If you need a process for guidance, make it as lean as possible and instill mechanisms to review on a regular horizon. Remember the natural reaction for anyone when encountered by an obstacle is to seek to get around it. So if you have optimized your process for a single group without understanding impact or ongoing effectiveness, you may find people finding creative ways to avoid it altogether.
  5. Work to reduce risk and friction by making room for recurrent small horizon activities. By making things at a more micro level you can a) have a much more manageable level of work, put in place more timely rollback plans in the case of failure for recovery and ensure that the system in place remains light to better encourage people to “follow the rules” in place.
  6. Create a mechanism and bandwidth for regular feedback upon which you can take action when friction occurs. Receiving feedback decoupled from any way to make actionable changes discourages people to even raise an issue of where friction may be occurring.
  7. Realize that some processes may be cumbersome. Really dig into them for the end core value. Visualize the workflow and why each step and the surrounding rituals and artifacts are needed. Be open to challenge and eliminate areas built up around historical mistrust and reflect on how it’s actually working.

And last, don’t try and eat the elephant all at once. Find a small collection of things to review and potentially improve. Put in the mechanisms to monitor the changes (can be a simple as a retro to as “better/worse/fiasco”) to see if you are still on track. Avoid bending to the LVITR (“Loudest voice in the room”) syndrome through facilitation and ensure that the right people are there and give input of the impact of friction, trust the people doing the work and encourage them to solve the problems and make their work even better.

Hope everyone has a great upcoming holiday! Stay Agile!