“The Friction Project” coauthor Robert Sutton.
Two Stanford professors lay out common workplace challenges in their new book titled “The Friction Project.”Those problems include excessive collaboration, addition, and oblivious leaders.Coauthor Robert Sutton outlines five of those “frictions.”
Whether it’s an oblivious CEO or a tendency to overcomplicate things, many organizations grapple with forces that gum up the works and bring productivity to a grinding halt.
Two Stanford professors, Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, tackle some of the most common problems in a new book titled, “The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder.”
Using examples such as Apple and Microsoft, coauthor Robert Sutton laid out five examples of friction in workplaces in an interview with Business Insider.
1. Feudal lords
It’s often the case that the more direct reports a person has, the more they get paid — regardless of the quality or importance of the work they oversee.
“A lot of organizations create incentives for building fiefdoms independent of the value of the fiefdoms,” Sutton says, meaning people are rewarded for running large teams even if they don’t deliver.
He relates an anecdote about a veteran manager at a tech company who would hire three world-class coders in their forties, and get more done than a hotshot colleague who hired a raft of coders straight out of college.
2. Excessive collaboration
He highlighted her experience to underscore the difference in culture between the two Big Tech giants. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, encourages its employees to pitch in to solve problems wherever they are and to volunteer their opinions.
In contrast, Apple is famously secretive. Its onus on discretion helps people to focus on their own work, and reduces the risk they get distracted helping their colleagues, Sutton says.
Apple HQ in Cupertino, California.
Apple’s clearly defined responsibilities lead to fewer “orphan problems” where “everyone points the finger and it’s somebody else’s job,” he says. They also reduce administrative bloat, as cross-team emails and oversized meetings are rarer.
“Finding structural ways to reduce the collaborative overload of people is important,” Sutton says, otherwise people can wind up spending too much time weighing in on others’ work and not enough doing their own.
3. Team performance
Organizations can suffer if their bosses prize individual performance above all else. The result can be a selfish, backstabbing culture where employees only care about getting ahead of the competition.
Since Satya Nadella took over as CEO from Steve Ballmer in 2014, Microsoft appears to have shifted its definition of superstars from simply the best individual performers to those who excel and help others to succeed too, Sutton says.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leaders should also be aware of the impact of what they say and do on those around them, Sutton noted.
Their words carry weight, so if they voice every half-formed idea and passing fancy that pops into their minds, they risk sending workers off on wild goose chases.
4. Less is more
Humans have a tendency to addition, meaning their instinct is to complicate situations instead of simplifying them, in Sutton’s view.
“Organizations too often reward people who build fiefdoms, who start new initiatives, who buy new software,” he said, instead of people who subtract instead of adding.
He touted pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s simplification initiative a few years ago. It aimed to use “good friction to fight bad friction” by making it harder for people to CC more than 20 people on an email, for example.
5. Teamwork takes time
Technology companies are famous for throwing people together to solve problems at a moment’s notice, but effective collaboration is rarely instant, Sutton says.
He points to Warren Buffett and his late business partner of six decades, Charlie Munger, as an “extreme example” showing that building long-term relationships can pay outsized dividends.
Tight deadlines and intense pressure can also result in undesirable behavior, he notes: “The more people are in a hurry, the more likely they are to cheat and cut corners, and the more likely they’re selfish and mean.”