Friction: Good or Bad?

Friction: Good or Bad?

"Imagine a world without friction."

As a 9th grader studying physics, hearing those words sparked my imagination. A world without friction sounds pretty cool in theory (no conflict, no difficult situations, no static cling!) but we know that in reality, friction is a natural – and necessary – part of how things work.

The same is true in the world of business leadership. Friction exists in every team and organization – some helpful and some hindering. Instead of pretending it doesn't exist or trying to eliminate it entirely, leaders must understand and skillfully manage the different types of friction.

When you think “friction on a team", your first thought is probably tension, frustration, or disagreement – anything that stifles productive thinking and generally makes work difficult. However, according to esteemed Stanford professors Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva (Huggy) Rao, friction is a double-edged sword. They describe "bad friction" as excessive steps in an administrative process that cause delays, distraction, and irritation. "Good friction," on the other hand, introduces intentionality into any process and helps stimulate better thinking and decision-making.

But before we get into the “how” and “why”, a bit more about what makes friction “good” or “bad”...

"Good" vs. "Bad" Friction

Sutton and Rao describe “bad friction” as what most of us would consider classic workplace impediments. Office politics, the dreaded M-word (micromanagement), and those never-ending meetings that drain our energy are common examples of “bad friction” we’ve all experienced. Working against “bad friction” is like navigating a maze of red tape, facing obstacles that not only slow us down but – more importantly – dampen our creativity and enthusiasm and leave us feeling stuck, disengaged, or worse.

While “bad friction” gums up the works for all the wrong reasons, “good friction” serves as a structured pause – a time to think critically, considering oversights, unintended consequences, and any other critical assumptions you’ve made. It's the guiding hand that delivers greater quality, attention to detail, and accountability. Unlike its counterpart, “good friction” empowers us, fosters productive collaboration, and nurtures a culture of excellence.

Finding a Balance

How, then, do we design friction into or out of our work lives, as appropriate?

Sutton and Rao suggest what they call "friction forensics". It's about digging deeply into our processes, systems, and interactions to uncover areas of inefficiency and opportunity (if this sounds a little like statistical process control or continuous quality improvement, it is).

Seek out areas where bad friction has taken root, often in the form of outdated practices, bloated structures, and workflows ill-suited to your company's current size and needs. Poor leadership habits like micromanagement also enable bad friction to fester, leaving employees feeling both unappreciated and over-managed.

Once you've pinpointed and addressed the bad friction within your team or org, evaluate where your organization needs some “good friction”. This is especially essential for high-stakes, complex initiatives like multi-step approval processes for major hires, or integrating an acquisition to help ensure thoroughness. One example is to develop specific feedback loops for your creative projects (as has been done at Pixar) – that tap the brakes just enough to invoke the team’s highest quality output – their films.

Make Friction Work for You

Sutton and Rao teach us that embracing friction – both good and bad – is the next critical step leaders can take to unlock more of our organization's full potential. Go forth and simplify where you can and should. And add a little good friction where you’d like people to slow down and dig deeper.

Leaders, this is core to your job. You will set the tone for how both “good” and “bad friction” are perceived and managed within your company. By fostering a culture of transparency, autonomy, and continuous improvement, we can promote “good friction” that helps us thrive. And we can identify and eliminate “bad friction,” the kind that makes everyone ask “why is this so annoying, irritating, and inefficient!?! We can fix this.” And that is what’s most important.

Want to discuss the "good" and "bad" friction in your organization? Send me a message, or set up a call with me – either way, I'd love to hear from you!