Author Talks: Got friction? Stanford’s Robert I. Sutton shares what you can do about it

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Rick Tetzeli chats with Robert I. Sutton, organizational psychologist and Stanford University professor emeritus of management science and engineering, about his new book, The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan Publishers, January 2024). Cowritten by Huggy Rao, the book explains why friction hampers company productivity and explores how business leaders can identify and eliminate friction within their organizations. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

Hayagreeva [Huggy] Rao and I didn’t mean to write a book about organizational friction. But in 2014, we wrote the book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less. We noticed that all the organizations that we worked with got larger and more complex—so things just kept getting harder as they aged. People would express frustration about meetings, emails, and procedures. They felt like they were walking in muck, and it seemed like an interesting problem.

Was there anything that surprised you in the seven years of researching and writing the book?

When we started out we had two assumptions, which turned out to be wrong. One was that anything that was hard to do was a bad idea. But as we delved more deeply into organizations, it seemed that a lot of things should be hard to do. It ought to be hard to do immoral or unethical things. Also, speed can be your enemy, so you may need to slow down. The other thing that surprised us is that we kept running into people who were trustees of others’ time. As leaders, they took that role seriously. They saw themselves as friction fixers who recruited other people to help them get rid of bad friction and to inject good friction.

How did you learn everything you’ve learned about friction?

We conducted academic studies, led an effort to study 2,000 teams in a large software company, and conducted many case studies of friction fighting at AstraZeneca and Uber. We began hanging out with smart executives who were good at friction fixing. We also met Dr. Melinda Ashton, formerly of Hawaii Pacific Health system, the largest healthcare system in the state. She led an effort entitled the “Get Rid of Stupid Stuff” campaign. Dr. Ashton asked people to submit ideas about “stupid stuff.” She got rid of a bunch of stupid stuff that reduced the burden on nurses and doctors as they dealt with the electronic health record system.

What are some of the worst examples of friction you encountered?

There is research conducted by my close colleague Melissa Valentine. One study that she conducted involved following the growth of a large cancer center. The team assembled the best doctors, equipment, and nurses in the world, and had the fanciest facilities. Yet they forgot that their various departments’ services provided virtually no help for the patients and families of people who had cancer. They labeled this the “cancer tax.” The challenge of coordinating visits across silos was a huge burden on families. When families suffer because an organization or a process is poorly designed, it really breaks your heart.

If friction is problematic, why do leaders invite it into their organizations? Are they ‘oblivious leaders’?

Sometimes, oblivious leaders don’t realize that vague desires can be amplified so strongly that initiatives will start without their realizing it. Thirty years ago, I was conducting research on courtesy in 7-Eleven franchises. This was before the company was sold. It had a large initiative where it tried to get every clerk in every 7-Eleven store to smile, establish eye contact, and say, “thank you” to every customer, which seems reasonable.

The initiative was launched because the then-CEO had a temper tantrum about a rude 7-Eleven clerk. As a result, people thought he wanted a courtesy movement. When the CEO discovered, years later, that this movement had been initiated, he stopped it. He said, “People don’t go to 7-Eleven for courtesy. I was just having a temper tantrum.” That’s an example of amplification of vague desires. Leaders, especially powerful ones, must be careful. Otherwise, people will over-interpret their signals.

Who are the friction fixers, and how can they be effective?

The best friction fixers mobilize others to make changes that improve organizations. A great example is Todd Park, an American “hero” who we interviewed. Park was part of the Obama administration when the Obamacare healthcare system was first established. At the time, there was a website that people needed to visit to enroll in the Obamacare exchange.

Online enrollment was fraught with delays, but Todd Park figured out how to fix the problem—not by delving a couple layers deep but by going to its root. In this case, the government contractors who actually understood how the system functioned were the key contacts. That is an example of Todd Park being a friction fixer. He found the people who understood the problem, and he worked with them. It wasn’t all beauty, roses, and happiness, because there was some conflict between the Silicon Valley people and the government contractors. Yet he got them to fix the problem.

How can one become a friction fixer?

Our argument about friction fixing is that very often, it’s an “orphan” problem: people will say it’s somebody else’s problem. The more senior you are, the more powerful you are. But to us, everyone has some responsibility for making things better rather than worse. I have two examples.

First, in the state of California where I live, the Department of Motor Vehicles is considered a challenging place. It is a good example of friction. Customers wait for hours and are confused. The last time I went to the DMV was one of the best customer experiences I’ve had in years. I arrived at approximately 7:30 a.m. They opened at 8 a.m. At 7:45 a.m., a man walked out and provided triage. He gave us forms to complete and told us what line to stand in. To my amazement, I left by 8:15. It was a beautiful experience because this guy, with some guidance from management, took it upon himself to be a friction fixer. I learned later that he did that to ease the experience for all of us. That’s one example of someone who takes responsibility.

The second example is of a more corporate environment. Recently, I conducted a seminar with 200 vice presidents from a large software company. Several of them made a series of complaints. We were completing an activity called the subtraction game, and I said, “What do you want to subtract from this large software company?” They began complaining about long and unnecessary messages sent via Slack, so I paused. I said, “So you are 200 vice presidents: 200 of the 600 vice presidents in this company. You should take some responsibility, yourself. You are the ones who are sending Slack messages that are too long, inappropriate, and on the wrong topics. If you show a little bit of self-discipline and realize that friction fixers are you or friction fixers are me, then you might be able to reduce the burden on one another.”

What are the qualities of a friction fixer?

I love stories where people swoop in, fix their problem, and it’s fixed forever. But that’s not how life works when it comes to friction fixing. Friction fixers know that it’s a discipline. It’s something they must do repeatedly.

A classic example is a 2013 case study I wrote with one of my students about an effort by Dropbox called “Armeetingeddon,” in which IT folks removed all standing meetings from the calendars of every Dropbox engineer for two weeks. Then they slowly added them back to create some discipline. We wrote it up in 2015. When I asked the CEO, “How is it going?” he said, “It’s even worse than usual. It is like mowing the lawn. You have to keep doing it over and over again.”

The best friction fixers tend to view organizations as malleable prototypes, not as something fixed that they can’t do anything about. They feel empowered to actually change the system that they lead.

Tell us more about the concept of ‘addition sickness.’

There is a question of what “addition sickness” is and why people in organizations are plagued with it. Our research revealed that there are at least three reasons for it. The first reason is that there’s very strong evidence that when humans face problems, our default problem solving is addition—we tend to add more. The second reason is that if you look at the incentives in many organizations, the people who get paid more are the people who start new initiatives. The more direct reports you have, the more you get paid. That’s an incentive piece. There’s a third reason. Many organizations have what they call the “credit card problem.” Anyone who has a company credit card can add new software that no one else wants to use, no one else is interested in learning. It’s something that makes some happy, but adds burdens to others. Those are some of the reasons that organizations suffer from addition sickness. It’s not hopeless, but there are forces to overcome.

There’s very strong evidence that when humans face problems, our default problem solving is addition—we tend to add more.

What is your proposed solution for addition sickness?

Organizations, people, and teams are not helpless against addiction sickness. There are many things that organizations can do. It [friction fixing] starts with the mindset that leaders of organizations see themselves as editor in chief, whose job it is to subtract unnecessary stuff or to make it difficult for people to add it in the first place.

It [friction fixing] starts with the mindset that leaders of organizations see themselves as editor in chief, whose job it is to subtract unnecessary stuff or to make it difficult for people to add it in the first place.

At a company called Asana, we collaborated with the work innovation lab. During a “meeting reset,” we asked 60 Asana employees to view every meeting on their calendars and rate them by level of effort and by importance. The rating took place after employees assessed the meetings and either got rid of some or redesigned some to make them shorter. The average employee in the study reduced the burden by four hours a week, which was pretty good.

What’s the subtraction game?

We’ve played the subtraction game with more than 150 organizations now. We ask people to just pause and think about what’s in their life: what’s getting in the way, what’s driving them crazy. We ask them to think about what they should remove. For example, we played the subtraction game with a pharmaceutical company. The corporate lawyer figured out that the company had 86 difficult family leave policies. He wrote me a note just two weeks later, “Well, I got rid of 15 of them. I think that’s pretty good.” In another example, an executive had a weekly team meeting with his top eight people who were in six different time zones. He changed the team meeting to every two weeks. One of the things that the best organizations do to fight addition sickness is they make it difficult to add unnecessary burdens in the first place.

Yet another example of friction fixing involves Laszlo Bock, head of human resources at Google for more than ten years. He wrote a book called Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. When he was at Google, there was a problem that went back to the founding of the company. A prospective Googler could be interviewed eight, ten, 12—as many as 25—times before a hiring decision was made. This process might have been great in the early days when Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were building the company. Yet when Google became a large company, this process was actually driving away candidates.

To counter that, Bock devised a simple rule. Employees who were planning to conduct more than four job interviews before making a decision were required to write Bock, explain the reason for conducting additional interviews, and then get written permission from him for five or more interviews. The number of interviews plummeted right after that rule was implemented. Bock is an example of a friction fixer. A great friction fixer redesigns the system so that it’s hard to do something that adds burdens on everyone.

Why do leaders create too little friction at times?

Daniel Kahneman makes the argument that when you’re in a cognitive minefield, things are going wrong, and you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t just hit the gas. You slow down and you figure out what’s going on. There’s also some really interesting new research about how high-IQ people make decisions: when it comes to easy problems, high-IQ people make decisions more quickly than people with somewhat lower IQs. But when dealing with complex problems, really smart people are slower because they take time to figure it out. What a lot of us don’t think about is that the good and beautiful things in life are things we want to slow down, savor, and enjoy.

For example, the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands is called Jumbo. After hearing from some of their older customers, company members realized that customers wanted to have longer conversations with the checkout clerk. They created a prototype where they had slow checkout lanes, where a customer could chat with the clerk. Now, that concept has spread to 200 stores. This is a great example of how we want many things to be fast and frictionless. But sometimes you need to slow down to enjoy the good things in life.

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