EPM Principles

F*%! Friction

In Project Management, the real F-word is Friction…  

Always be on the lookout for friction within your team.  Aside from a negative company culture, friction is one of the most counter productive elements your team can encounter.

What is friction and why is it so dangerous?

Friction is anything that impedes an individual or members of a team from working harder to make progress faster.  In general, we always want team members to feel like their contribution is directly proportional to their effort.  If you work really hard, you can achieve great things, right?  However, if there is a lot of friction within your team, working harder to do more is not always possible.

Friction within the workplace is like wind to a runner.  When you run headlong into a strong wind, it feels like you are busting your ass but barely moving.  Lots of effort and noise just to keep plodding along slowly.  Alternatively, if you run with the wind at your back you feel like you are zipping along effortlessly.  Smooth, fast, and fluid.

Friction is dangerous because it can wear down your key contributors over time.  You want the people on your team to work hard.  You want them to put in extra effort.  You want to make progress and accomplish great things.  When you add friction to that process, your team is now battling two obstacles — 1. the actual work, and 2. arbitrary friction imposed on the process of doing the work.  If this friction is too high, your team will eventually get tired of it and stop putting in the extra effort.  Why should anyone bother if the faster they try to move, the more friction they encounter?  Like sprinting into the wind, it is a crappy and unrewarding process.

Types of friction in your work?

What does friction look like?  The most common categories of friction in the workplace are People, Processes, Tools, and Decisions.

People – Team members who make your job more difficult than it needs to be.  Their work deliverables may be late or incomplete, their participation may be lacking or intermittent, or they may routinely pushback on the direction the team wants to move.  We’ve all worked with people like this, and it’s never a good situation.  One bad actor can slow down the entire group.

Process – Generally, a high friction process is a ‘required’ method of doing a common task which makes the task complicated, cumbersome, and slow.  Common sources of Process Friction include over use of generic checklists, mandatory reports (which no one reads), and repetitive manual tasks.

Tools – In my experience, high friction tools are the result of using crappy IT.  If you are accustomed to using a Mac, and someone asks you to work on an old Windows PC, it feels like trying to run in cement shoes with a blindfold on.  So much of corporate America is beholden to legacy systems that run on outdated Microsoft platforms.  Its a real shame, and a huge source of friction.

A few of the most common sources of IT friction include;

  • Old PCs running even older Microsoft Office applications
  • Lack of collaboration tools (Box, Slack, cloud based document sharing)
  • Arcane security requirements – new 12 digit passwords which change every 4 weeks but are different from the other 12 digit passwords which also must be changed every few weeks which are also different from the other passwords…

Decisions / Leadership – My personal favorite type of friction, because as a Program Manager, nothing is more frustrating to my team than the inability of senior leadership to set a clear direction.

How do you know if you are encountering decision-related friction?

  • If decisions can only be made by one person (e.g. a senior executive) resulting in the team languishing in uncertainty until this person be consulted to make a decision.
  • If your team is stuck in Analysis Paralysis, aka the tendency to over analyze a situation, constantly seeking more data on a topic, and thus perpetually delaying making a decision
  • If your leadership is unable or unwilling to make tradeoffs and establish clear priorities.

Steve Jobs famously said that focus…

means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1000 things.

If your company or project team says Yes to Everything, how can you possibly make progress in any direction?  Not making a decision is often the worst decision of all.   

If you find friction, what can you do?

Regardless of your position within the team or company, we should all do what we can to reduce and eliminate sources of Friction.  Of course, some sources Friction are easieraaan others.  So what can you do?

Step 1:  Identify the source of Friction, and clearly define how it is slowing down the overall project / team.

Step 2:  Verify this particular source of Friction with other members of your team.  Does the group recognize this is an issue, or do they have a different opinion.  There may be instances where what you see as slow and cumbersome is viewed by many people as a critical and important process, which is slow by design.

Step 3:  Independently or with your team, brainstorm ways to reduce this type of friction.

  • Can a manual process be automated?
  • Can we implement a new collaboration tool to make group work more efficient?
  • Can we encourage senior leadership to make decisions faster, or delegate some types of decision making authority to other leaders within the team?

Step 4:  Implement your ‘Fix’ as a small trial to test its effectiveness.  There is one near universal truth regardless of your company, the more people you ask for permission to try something new, the longer and less likely you will be to get approval.

Instead, just test your improvement in a small trial.  If your experiment works and team efficiency is improved, you can propose this solution be adopted more broadly.  And if your trial doesn’t work, no worries, it was only a small test.

Summary

Friction in your work is dangerous not because it prevents the team from making progress, but because it requires ever increasing effort to accomplish the same thing in less time.  Left unchecked, friction will grind down the motivation of your team, resulting in frustration, complacency, and cynicism.  Project Managers and team leaders must always be on the lookout for sources of friction, some of which can be hiding in plain sight (e.g. inefficient tools), and should feel empowered to address and reduce the cause of friction directly.  

At the end of the day, if you want your team to move fast and do great things, you need to eliminate as much friction as possible.  

F*%! Friction and go make something awesome!

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