Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 9) Frustrate with friction

Dec 31, 2011 by

This is the ninth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 8) Entertain egos.

Friction slows things down. If you roll a ball along a flat and level surface it will eventually stop as a result of rolling friction. A ship sailing through a body of water is slowed by friction caused by the movement of the hull in the water. An aircraft flying through the air is slowed by the friction of air resistance. Even in space friction will act on a moving object. Although space is generally described as a vacuum, it is not a perfect vacuum but one in which very small frictional forces are at work.

Although friction impedes progress it is necessary for healthy operation. While rolling friction will slow down a rolling ball, without static friction the ball would slide and not roll at all. Without traction created by adhesive friction between tires and the surface of a road, the wheels on your car or bike would simply spin you would get nowhere. Static friction ensures that objects sitting on your desk don’t slide off surfaces that aren’t perfectly level while also allowing you to walk by converting a backwards push of feet along the ground into forward motion. In music friction is tension produced by the use of techniques such as harmonic and melodic dissonance and rhythmic syncopation. Without that friction the music would be uninteresting. In collaborative interactions friction is generated as a result of discussion. There is always the potential that such interactions can degenerate into heated arguments but without healthy discussions a team may make bad decisions or fail to exploit opportunities. Friction is generated when rules and procedures must be followed. When the legal department must review the publication of a document the requirement generates friction that slow things down but failing to obtain such a review may expose the organisation to risk.

We can all find multiple examples of friction in our daily work. When work begins on a new project all those involved must agree to commit to the work and resources must be secured. How hard is to obtain these commitments? In the course of contributing content to a project, whether it be code, documents, music arrangements or anything else, tools are often used to create and manage content. How much work is involved in using such tools? If multiple tools must be used how well do they integrate with one another? In teams everyone’s individual content contributions must be integrated into a meaningful collective product. How hard is it to do this? In software development this is achieved by running builds and tests. In the course of collaborating with others, how much effort is required to track what others are doing? What about soliciting and obtaining feedback on work in progress?

The workings of many organisations are impeded by excessive friction because things that don’t seem like a source of friction can become a big problem when there is repeated execution. Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote about this in his early 19th-century treatise on military strategy, On War:

“Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war…

Countless minor incidents – the kind you can never really foresee – combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal…

Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper….

Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”

Excessive friction is arguably the greatest impediment to execution and consequently the greatest obstacle to success. However the impact of excessive friction often takes its toll over a long period of time. In most large organisations excessive friction is the result of long-standing methods that are ingrained into the standard ways of working and people may be reluctant to alter such traditions. Meanwhile, people become frustrated especially when they can clearly see the source of the friction and ways in which it could be reduced.

To avoid frustrating your teams and improve efficiency figure out where excessive friction is generated in your organisation and work at reducing it.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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