Bob Sutton is a professor of management science at the Stanford University School of Engineering. Huggy Rao is the Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Below, co-authors Bob and Huggy share 5 key insights from their new book, The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder. Listen to the audio version—read by Bob—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. You are a trustee of people’s time.
Leaders and teams that are especially good at making the right things easy and the wrong things hard embrace a similar mindset or mission. They have an attitude that we call the trustees’ mindset. They see themselves as trustees of others’ time. When we were at Stanford preparing a class for 60 executives, our colleague Jeremy Utley stood up in the middle of the meeting and bellowed, “I hate wasting other people’s time!” That is the embodiment of the trustees’ mindset—a leader who feels obligated to assure that their employees, customers, or students have every minute of their time used well.
Being a trustee is never a one-and-done situation. Back in 2015, I wrote an article about how Dropbox had this amazing intervention called Armeetingeddon in 2013, where leaders removed standing meetings from everybody’s calendar, and employees couldn’t add new meetings back in for about a week. During this time, they were asked to think about which meetings were essential. Dropbox also made all these new rules and displayed them on the walls, like, for example, that you should keep meetings as small as possible, and you should even leave a meeting if it wasn’t effective or you weren’t adding value.
They did reduce the number of unnecessary meetings for a while, but when we wrote it up for Inc. two years later, their CEO Drew Houston told us, “It’s worse than ever. It’s like mowing the lawn; you’ve got to do it over and over again with discipline where you never fix anything.” Adopting the trustees’ mindset is like mowing the lawn. It’s a way of life, a discipline.
2. Adopt a subtraction mindset.
When we see people and organizations that are skilled at fighting bad friction, they adopt what we call the subtraction mindset. This is not something that comes naturally to human beings. A series of 20 studies done by researchers from the University of Virginia shows that humans are wired to solve problems by adding rather than subtracting complexity. Adding complexity is our natural tendency, whether we’re planning a vacation, fixing a Lego model, or fixing a university. The organizations we studied made this problem worse by rewarding people who build fiefdoms, start initiatives, and add software—and not rewarding people who reduce complexity.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are many things in the organizations we studied that people do using the subtraction mindset.
“Adding complexity is our natural tendency, whether we’re planning a vacation, fixing a Lego model, or fixing a university.”
A great example happened at Hawaii Pacific Medical, Hawaii’s largest health care system. A woman named Dr. Melinda Ashton was concerned about the excessive time that doctors, nurses, and so forth were spending on the electronic patient record system instead of focusing on patients directly. So, she started the Get Rid of Stupid Stuff campaign. She had people make suggestions from throughout the system about parts of the electronic record process that could be subtracted or simplified. She described it as “parts that were poorly designed, unnecessary, or just plain stupid.”
People in the system suggested 188 subtraction targets, and her team made 87 improvements. Here is one, just to give you an example: They eliminated one mouse click that was made for every patient as nurses and nurse assistants made rounds. With just that one little click removed, they saved 24 seconds per click, which saved approximately 1,700 nursing hours per month at their four hospitals. Embrace the subtraction mindset.
3. Avoid jargon monoxide.
Our third lesson is to watch your language; avoid using what Huggy and I call jargon monoxide. All sorts of destructive friction is caused when people routinely use overly complex or incomprehensible language.
Just one example is jargon mishmash syndrome. This is when a certain kind of language or phrase means so many things to so many different people that it is meaningless. We’re taking a cue from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. He talks about noise being a big problem when it comes to figuring out the correct action because recommendations, data, or definitions that people use are so varied and inconsistent that people can’t figure out what to do, whom to trust, or what some idea “really means.” Kahneman defines noise as situations where there is “a random scatter of ideas” rather than a discernable pattern.
An example that illustrates noise is a speech given by an Australian agile consultant. This fellow Craig Smith gave a rollicking 40-minute speech describing 40 different kinds of agile— everything from Holacracy, Scrum Plop, Deming, Beyond Budgeting, and Lean Startup. Many were methods that, frankly, I’ve never heard of. If under the tent of agile there are 40 different meanings of the word agile, then agile means at least 40 different things to different people. This fits Kahneman’s definition of a “random scatter of ideas,” and thus, it means nothing.
When you get in a situation where you’ve got the jargon mishmash syndrome, the best solution is just to stop using the worn-out term in question. Clean up your language, and people will be less confused, communicate better, and know what the heck to do!
4. Not all friction is bad.
There are situations where friction is good. Friction fixers banish bad friction and identify things that ought to be difficult, slow, or impossible. To give you one example, let’s look at research on creativity. Teresa Amabile, a Professor from Harvard Business School, explains that when you put creativity under the gun and rush people too much, all sorts of bad things happen. Creativity is a fundamentally inefficient process. It entails a lot of dead ends, failure, and constructive conflict—when you’re doing it right.
“Creativity is a fundamentally inefficient process.”
The lesson here is Jerry Seinfeld. The famous comedian and co-creator of the TV show Seinfeld says, “When it comes to comedy, the hard way is the right way; there is no natural way to make it efficient.” When he prepares a show, he will try hundreds and hundreds of jokes, and maybe 1 or 2 percent will survive. When it comes to many things in life, they should be slow, difficult, and complicated. Trying to build a frictionless organization is a fool’s errand.
5. Embrace the mess.
The best leaders are of two minds. Their first perspective is focused on being good organizational designers: removing bad procedures, weaving together knowledge and action from different corners of the company, making unethical or dumb things impossible, and a host of other changes in how the organization operates. So, they’re constantly thinking about ways to clean up the mess by improving organization design.
But they also are of another mind that knows that there will be procedures, laws, and rules that are dumb, dangerous, and impair progress, which leaders and teams can’t escape or repair—at least for now. As in the rest of life, there will always be difficult stretches, times where people in workplaces are confused, upset, and can’t figure out how to fix things. Being a friction fixer means figuring out how to cope with and navigate messy situations.
Here’s what great leaders do in such situations. Clara Shih is CEO of AI at Salesforce, a member of Starbucks’s board since she was 29, and Chair and founding CEO of her own company, Hearsay Systems. Clara says that when she launches something new, she urges her team to embrace the mess. She uses an approach called separation of concerns which is from computer science. She has one team that focuses on implementing things that are working well, and she has another team whose job is to clean up the inevitable messes that arise.
As a friction fixer and trustee of others’ time, you often have to do two things at once: keep people charging ahead on the things going right and as planned, and handle the inevitable surprises, setbacks, confusion, and other messes that need cleaning up.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Bob Sutton, download the Next Big Idea App today: