We’ve launched a campaign of conversations with smart people about friction. This includes interviews with executives, managers, customers, consultants, academics and others leaders, followers, designers, experts, and rebels— for case studies, practical articles, the Friction Podcast, for our academic friction studies, and often just because we meet or learn about some interesting person and want to catalog and consider their ideas and stories. For example, we interviewed an executive who led efforts to scale retail stores in Asia for two different corporations—one based in the U.S. and the other Europe. She outlined how teams she led avoided and overcame friction and frustration caused by corporate traditions and practices that were ill-suited to Asian markets. We interviewed another executive who led a software businessplagued by dysfunctional competition and poor communication between people in different silos and by distractions and bad advice from the parent organization. As a result of such cognitive overload and frustration, product development was slowed, and mistakes multiplied. This executive, his senior team, and people throughout the organization felt helpless, exhausted, and their tempers sometimes flared.
Our campaign of conversations includes numerous less formal—and often unplanned--discussions about friction. We talk about it with students in our Stanford classes; with executives, managers, and other masters and victims of friction we teach in Stanford executive education programs; with members of our affiliates program and our “kitchen cabinet” at Designing Organizational Change; and we talk to (and sometimes just observe) anyone we encounter anywhere who can teach us about friction—flight attendants, food servers, Comcast service employees, and the random engineer, nurse, doctor, military officer, project manager or executive who happens to be next to us on the plane or the next barstool. In this spirit, we are eager to hear your stories and ideas about friction. Please email Huggy, me, or both of us.
Existing Theory, Research, and Non-Academic Sources
We are scouring, cataloging, and discussing scholarly writings on a broad range of topics related to friction. This includes theory and research on organizational structure, processes, and routines; corporate and government red tape; organizational change, growth, and scaling; leadership; Holacracy and other “less hierarchical” organizational control systems; organizational culture; the causes and consequences of cognitive overload and emotional exhaustion, and dozens of other articles and books in fields including management, economics, psychology, sociology, operations research, anthropology, and political science. We also are collecting and discussing books, articles, podcasts, pictures, and films intended for general audiences that provide insights about and illustrations of friction.
Research Supported By Designing Organizational Change
Designing Organizational Change has modest funds to support research by Stanford students and faculty. We are helping to fund two projects that have implications for reducing organizational friction. The first, led by Professors Melissa Valentine and Michael Bernstein is on “Flash Teams,” which they define as “computationally-guided teams of crowd experts, supported by lightweight, reproducible, and scalable team structures.” These temporary teams (or organizations) are composed of strangers, assembled and coordinated via software tools to accomplish a particular task, and then disbanded. Valentine and Bernstein created a software platform called Foundry to help assemble and run what The New York Times called “Pop-Up Employers.” They found that these temporary online gatherings of strangers (who never meet in person) can accomplish complex tasks-- such as designing, building, and testing a sophisticated card game and mobile app--by coordinating and dividing up the work with software tools such as Slack. See this New York Times article for a description of Valentine and Bernstein’s research on these “easy come, easy go” teams and organizations.
We are also providing seed funds for a second project that compares different methods for helping entrepreneurs in developing economies launch new ventures. Professor Chuck Eesley is leading this long-term project, and the research team includes Professor Melissa Valentine and PHD student Khonika Gope. Initial research by Eesley and his team suggests there are drawbacks to the western-style “accelerator-based” training now given to many founders in developing economies--which emphasize in-person training and the importance of relying on face-to-face relationships, including constant in-person meetings with potential and actual funders, board members, employees, and customers. These lessons do not transfer well to many entrepreneurs in developing economies. The practical reality is that, compared to founders in Western economies, far more time and effort is required of them to build and sustain such in-person interactions—and there are fewer opportunities to develop such essential relationships in-person than in most western economies. So when founders try to apply Western lessons about entrepreneurship, they are often stalled and frustrated by friction.
As such, following loosely from Valentine and Bernstein’s work on flash organizations, Eesley and his team are building a software application to facilitate the training of entrepreneurs and the early stages of company formation via web-based rather than in-person connections. After developing and testing this friction-reducing app, their plan is to conduct a randomized experiment to compare the outcomes of entrepreneurs in developing economies who learn via in-person training programs and use face-to-face formation strategies to other entrepreneurs who use the app and the “distributed” interactions it enables. Their plan is examine long-term outcomes for entrepreneurs’ new ventures including time-to-funding, funding level, product releases, sales volume, and number of clients. They will also assess whether app-based entrepreneurship mentorship complements or is a substitute for traditional accelerator-based entrepreneurship methods.
Our Friction Studies
We have several ongoing studies with our students and researchers in industry that have implications for The Friction Project.
1. The “Friction-Fighting Olympics.” We are in the early stages of designing this competition with an industry association in the financial services sector. We are discussing an intervention and research project that is intended to motivate and mobilize front line employees, managers, executives, and customers. The goal is to inspire these employees and their customers to identify organizational traditions, practices, and norms that are frustrating, demeaning, and waste peoples’ time; to imagine and implement changes that dampen such friction; and to evaluate the impact of such changes.
2. The Workplace Barriers Study. We are working with a research organization to analyze data from their national surveys that asked employees about a recent day at work. Employees were asked to identify “barriers that kept you from doing your work” and to report their actions and feelings during that day—such as making a lot of progress, liking what they did, and feeling stressed, angry, worried, and tired. The aim of our analysis is to uncover different kinds of friction that employees encounter during the work day and their associated reactions.
3. The Onboarding Pre-Mortem Study. People often underestimate the friction and frustration they will wrestle with when they start a new job. In this field experiment by Huggy Rao and his students, they are examining if the use of pre-mortems by new employees in a large software firm can ease the onboarding process and set the stage for future performance and large pay increases. Prior research on pre-mortems suggests that employees make better decisions after they: 1. Imagine it is a few months or a year in the future; 2. Imagine they have failed; and 3. Describe the events, judgments, and actions that likely led to their failure. Building on such research, Rao and his students are comparing outcomes for new employees who use “success” pre-mortems (e.g., where they imagine it is several months later, they are enjoying and performing well at their job, and their early months were relatively free of frustration and unpleasant surprises), to new employees who used “failure” pre-mortems (e.g., where they imagine it is several months later, they are unhappy and their performance is mediocre, and their early months were plagued by frustration and unpleasant surprises), to new employees who did not engage in pre-mortems of any kind.
Huggy Rao and I are using diverse methods and means to learn about the nuances of organizational friction. These methods can be grouped into five tracks.