Bob Sutton Outthinkers Podcast

Leveraging Friction in Your Organization with Bob Sutton

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist and professor of Management Science and Engineering at the Stanford Engineering School. He has given keynote speeches to more than 200 groups in 20 countries and served on numerous scholarly editorial boards focused around his work on leadership, innovation, organizational change, and workplace dynamics. His most recent book, THE FRICTION PROJECT: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder, co-written with Huggy Rao is focused on scaling and leading at scale.

The Wisdom of Slowing Down

For significant new initiatives, Sutton advocates starting slow: “If you want to roll out something big, it takes a long time to get people on board.” Rapid, sweeping changes risk alienating employees midstream before you fully map needs and impacts. It’s better to gradually ramp up scale.

Sutton points to successful AI implementations where leadership patiently educated staff on objectives and workflow integration. This friction granted time to address concerns, align activities, and refine systems – enabling smoother adoption long-term.

Friction also benefits the creative process. Rapid iteration can yield quantity but undermine originality and quality. Sutton notes, “If things are messed up and you don’t know what to do, slow down and try to fix them.” Quick pivots leave little opportunity for reflection critical to imaginative work. Deliberate friction fosters the deep thought that innovation demands.

The Danger of Racing Ahead

Most companies focus growth efforts on accelerating successes while eliminating drag on progress. Sutton argues you also need processes that deliberately slow harmful traits as organizations scale. This selective friction prevents toxic activities from silently expanding until problems are endemic.

For example, early-stage companies often launch initiatives through informal conversations that suffice when teams are small. However, relied upon long-term, such casual coordination breeds misalignments from unclear decision rights and accountabilities. Sutton suggests controlled friction like RACI matrices to formally define roles amid growth.

Global remote work revolutionized access to talent but exacerbated blind spots between far-flung colleagues. Simple but consistent specs on teamwork protocols and project management systems counteract these identity gaps. The friction encourages necessary communications that likely occurred spontaneously before.

Streamline Strategically

None of this suggests organizations should retain unnecessary bureaucracy that throttles innovation velocity and employee empowerment. Sutton advises, “Get rid of unnecessary processes.”

However, leaders must thoughtfully distinguish valuable friction from true red tape and eliminate accordingly. If overzealous, streamlining might remove critical guardrails and governance.

Take digital transformation efforts introducing AI, RPA, and analytics to modernize operations. Such new technologies promise productivity gains but also carry unintended consequences if deployed hastily. Purposeful friction via ethics reviews and continuous monitoring ensures you move fast without breaking things.

In the end, organizational friction warrants neither blanket condemnation nor blind championing. As with most aspects of company building, judicious balance and contextual application are key. By taking a nuanced view, leaders can leverage friction for competitive advantage.

Listen to the full interview here.

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