The Power of Friction; Let’s hear it for those Jerks



Michael Arena
10/09/2018

Networked game pieces of varying colors some showing friction

That jerk on that other team may actually be helping you.

For years we have been taught that new market opportunities exist wherever there is friction. Business solutions that reduce customer friction can be incredibly successful. Just think about how Netflix came into existence. They were able to solve the problem of DVD rental late fees by providing a direct mail delivery service. Many other famous examples exist, such as Airbnb, who reduced the friction for owners to list and manage their rental properties and UberPool, who overcame the logistical friction for carpooling.

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Now here is the twist, when it comes to friction inside organizations, some degree of it is necessary. That is, without friction we are doomed for complacency. Enter that jerk on the team next to yours, who serves to introduce tension into the organizational network. Stanford professor’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao have been evaluating the benefits of friction in generating organizational agility. Their research suggests that organization’s need to have a proper balance of friction, removing destructive friction and injecting constructive friction.

Think of it this way, constructive friction is essential to scaling ideas because the resistance to the initial concept creates a pressure-testing effect that encourages iteration and co-creation. The result is greater adoption across the broader organizational network. This is especially true when the constructive friction is coming from another team. In other words, when ideas and concepts are modified in response to friction from another team, their perspective is incorporated, therefore enhancing the likelihood of broader organizational endorsement. Internal friction, creates organizational lift—much the way headwinds assist with an aircraft’s takeoff. This phenomenon appears counterintuitive, as one would think that as an aircraft took off, it would be the wind pushing it from behind that would give it an extra boost rather than the wind resisting against it. Yet accelerating into a gale of wind creates a “wheels up” effect even faster. For example, a Boeing 747 needs to reach 180 mph of airspeed before it can become airborne. Yet, if the same aircraft is charging into a 30 mph headwind, it only needs to accelerate to 150 mph. The velocity of air passing over the wings pulls the plane upward. The same can be true for ideas inside organizations. By charging into the headwinds, or creating some friction, an idea can reach “wheels up” much faster.

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Now, back to that jerk sitting in the team next to yours, what if you were to view him or her as a challenger, creating a “wheels up” effect. Challengers elicit debate and ensure that ideas have organizational value. Fact is, you should be more concerned if there isn’t resistance. You can’t have a breakthrough without something to breakthrough. So if you want to be innovative, invite those jerks to lunch. After all, these challengers are enabling adaptive space by creating friction. Challenger’s aren’t trying to be annoying, they are simply introducing constructive friction. 

So let’s hear it for the jerks. 

This article was originally published on Michael Arena's LinkedIn page.

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