Stay connected

We’d love to send you our monthly newsletter!

May 22, 2024   |  Articles

Reflecting on The Friction Project

Belleview Consulting has said for years that we take organizations From Friction to Function®.  This year, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao wrote an entire book, literally called The Friction Project and based on years of research, that dives deep into the concept of “friction” in organizations.  Thank you, gentleman!  This book covers so much of what I have been trying to articulate over the past four years!

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this month’s article is the latest installment in my “Dear More Successful Authors” series where I take a few moments to share my favorite (and least favorite) elements of The Friction Project.

Bias Warning (I am a fan of this book)

The Friction Project is the book I theorized when building Belleview Consulting but written as the culmination of years of research by professors with a much larger reach than my own.  This is basically my way of letting you all know that I am unlikely to be particularly objective in analyzing their research because their conclusions align delightfully well with the beliefs I had already formed based on my own observations.

Highlights

Perhaps most helpfully, with an entire book (rather than a tagline) at their disposal, Sutton and Rao are able to dive more deeply into the nuances of “friction” and distinguish between negative and positive friction.  A favorite attempted “gotcha” from some people when I toss out my tagline is reminding me that “without friction, the world couldn’t function” and that is absolutely true!  In my limited context, I usually note that just like trying to maneuver through the world, if you are sufficiently aware of the friction in your business that my tagline resonates for you, it is highly unlikely that we are talking about useful friction.

But in The Friction Project, Sutton and Rao dedicate entire sections of the book to identifying and reducing negative friction while seeking out and bolstering positive friction.  Negative friction slows down the work that needs doing and interferes with collaboration and efficiently achieving ideal outcomes.  Positive friction, on the other hand, can help us stop and think when we are at risk of leaning on Kahneman’s System 1 but really need System 2 or makes that 15th reprioritization decision this week just a little harder to roll out.  In short, reducing negative friction makes doing the right things easier and increasing positive friction makes doing the wrong things harder.

Perhaps my favorite part of the entire book, however, comes in the Wrap Up when they say, “organizational design is the highest form of friction fixing”.  Given that there was an entire phase where I referred to Operating Models as “Org Design+” and given that Operating Model design and implementation is the primary pillar of Belleview’s work, I’m not sure I could have asked for a stronger endorsement of my business model.  

This may come across as a somewhat flippant comment (and I fully intend to maximize the mileage I get from this quote) but it is also difficult for me to overstate how meaningful this conclusion is for me.  I left a pretty awesome job leading a fantastic team in a dynamic and interesting space to build a consulting company around the belief that clarifying roles and collaboration points would truly make a difference for other organizations.  It was a big leap of faith, as in ‘trying to jump the Grand Canyon’ big, and I am still mid-leap.  

That researchers with Sutton and Rao’s reputations, expertise, and depth of research came to the same conclusion is like someone with a bullhorn suddenly shouting “don’t worry, you’re almost down and there is solid ground here to catch you”.  

Of course, it remains up to me and my clients to ensure that Belleview Consulting actually uses these tools to address negative friction.  But it is always nice to know that there are other experts in the world who firmly believe that this is one of the valid paths to success.

Challenges

Given all of the above, it should hardly be a spoiler to say that I don’t have a ton of critiques of the book.  I am somewhat tempted to make a case that framing leadership challenges primarily through the lens of Power Poisoning is more a reflection of Sutton’s personal passions than an issue that must be addressed in those terms.  Personally, I have had far more luck with pointing out that senior leaders simply don’t have the perspective or bandwidth to see everything.  In many situations, both approaches hold at least some truth but the people reporting to the leaders seem to prefer the “poison” talk more than those who happen to hold the power…

But that is a relatively minor concern and since I am still trying to convince one or both of the authors to grab a coffee with me, probably not a great use of my time to hammer home too enthusiastically.  Particularly when style is as much a factor as truth!

So what I will focus on as the primary challenge this book faces is the simple fact that although it has many, many more words than my tagline, they are still limited to ~260 static pages.  There are incredible insights and, for many leaders, enough detail to get the ball rolling.  However, there will also inevitably be people who read the book and can see the negative friction threatening their organizations (or the need for more positive friction) and are still unclear on how to take the right first step for their organization in their current context.

This limit is hardly unique to The Friction Project.  In fact, I would argue that it is the plight of every book trying to shift mindsets and open eyes to new challenges.  There is only so much detail and flexibility you can fit into a unidirectional communication.  

So Now What?

If you happen to be one of those people who is trying to figure out the right first step, I am always a fan of starting with problem statements and articulating pain points.  For a free resource that might bring some clarity to you as a leader (or might help bring some clarity to your leadership), one great place to start is the Operating Model Maturity Assessment at the bottom of my Operating Model Design page.  

This is a journey I would love to see more organizations embark upon so if I can help in any way, please reach out via LinkedIn, my website, or Calendly!

Stay connected

Updates, insights into our perspective, and highlights from our work!