Where's the Friction?

Friction from conflicting beliefs gets in the way of effective decision-making.

Posted Oct 10, 2019

Some months ago, I wrote about “Frictionless Learning”. The idea is that too many of us miss opportunities because we can’t get past the friction which we perceive or create in the process of trying to learn something new. The same phenomenon, or tragedy, befalls businesses, corporations, and all organizations.

Entrepreneurs, being passionate problem-solvers, look for “pain points” their customers are experiencing. How do they go about that? What qualifies as a pain point? Easy example: an e-commerce retailer notices that, on sales of $10 million each month, shipping currently costs $1 million, That is certainly painful. Is the bleeding cash the “pain point”?

The CEO and management will certainly ask: “Where can we save money?” The good news is that the staff will find some cost-savings because there are always lower-cost choices for many items and services. When money is saved, don’t people feel productive? They may even be rewarded for their efforts. The bad news is that sometimes, these savings can be only short-term fixes, or they may represent sacrifices in quality or service.  The really bad news is that this approach can be superficial because the apparent pain point is not the “real problem”.

What questions should they be asking? One practice recommended by some consultants is called the “Five Whys”. The idea is that the CEO (or whoever is doing the asking) needs to break through 5 successive layers of cognitive barriers and unacknowledged assumptions in order to get at a root cause. For example, someone suggests buying a new packaging material that will be 10% cheaper. Should that be the “quick and easy answer”? Making that change would be simple. Isn’t that being smart, decisive, and efficient?

Suppose the change is made, and a few months later, customers start complaining that the new packaging is ugly and products are easily damaged in shipment. Now what? Was that decision not so smart, in retrospect? Why did this happen? Does this mean there is another pain point that management might not have been aware of? Worse, did this decision represent a new pain point that didn’t exist before?

How was the original problem presented? What conditions, if any, were mentioned as priorities? Was any input sought from customers? Is a company supposed to ask their customers when faced with this kind of situation? Isn’t that embarrassing – having to tell your customers that you want to save money? Today’s customers have very high expectations, having been spoiled by the likes of Apple, whose packaging is an aesthetic experience to be treasured almost as much as the product inside. How are companies that are not as successful or whose products are not luxury items supposed to live up to the Apple standard?

Now the scenario is getting to deeper questions of values, communication, and customer sensitivity. How many CEOs talk to their staff and their customers about these topics? How many of them have enough courage to admit they need help and seek it intelligently? How many of them would feel that asking would show their vulnerability, their weaknesses, even past mistakes in judgment?

In physics, friction happens when and where resistance is encountered. For example, the friction in your car’s disc brakes is the force that slows the car when you apply your brakes! A little friction will cause only slight slowing, while a strong push on the brakes can result in an abrupt stop. In this example, friction is a good thing!

Friction within an organization, friction in communication between people, however, can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences, including poor judgment in decision-making. Effective communications, even simple delegation of responsibility requires clarity, context and mutual respect. Friction results from resistance. What causes resistance in people? Commonly, fear of change is a terrific source of resistance within our brains, one that most of us might even deny, or simply block out, to save our egos.

What can we do to reduce internal friction? Might that really make our decisions better, and our businesses more successful? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were that simple? Of course, being less fearful, being more honest with ourselves and with others, will actually save a lot of stress and wear-and-tear on the body. The energy we put into feeling fearful and imagining all sorts of horrible consequences can be redirected into more constructive endeavors. That’s already a blessing.

For problem-solving, how might that extra energy and clarity help? The term “blinded by fear” is a true description of what happens to some people. When we focus on something fearful, research has shown that our brains filter out other bits of input that might actually be more important, if we were thinking rationally. But we aren’t always rational enough. Sometimes we don’t identify the right pain points. When that happens, our best efforts may yield solutions that may be inadequate or inappropriate.

How might thinking of the metaphor of friction help us make better choices?