The world needs more friction

Autumn has arrived in Chicago. On Wednesdays and Saturdays I make my way to the increasingly chilly outdoor farmers’ market in Lincoln Park, which has been enjoying its final days of the season. On each visit I find myself chatting with a man running the dairy stall. I keep going back to his stall because the first time I tried his milk it tasted how milk used to taste. Like the restaurant critic in the movie “Ratatouille” being transported back to his childhood when he tastes the rodent’s recipe, I had forgotten what ‘real’ milk tasted like. The dairy man talks a little about milk; he talks a lot about friction.

When I heard him utter the statement in the title my instinctive response was to challenge his assertion. I look around and see polarization within nations whose very names bear the word “united”, but only as if it were some aspirational label rather than a long neglected statement of fact. I see flame wars on social media acted out in person. And last week in the US we heard of bombs being sent through the mail in the US to those who have expressed strong opposition to the current president. Do we need more friction in the world?

I questioned the dairy man and he smiled. It turns out he sees friction not as conflict but rather as the gentle abrasion of old style interaction. His view is that we’re over-lubricated, not in some over-enthusiastic virgin way but rather that we’re coating too many of life’s processes and interactions with a form of virtual teflon; the free-flowing pendulum needs to swing back the other way.

We interact with people less and less in the flesh: workers are increasingly part of virtual teams, we buy our items online, from an invisible vendor, before they are dropped off at our door by a person who rings the bell and then may even drive off before we get to say hello… and thank you. Everything is convenient and is designed to be low cost and smooth.

The dairy man’s world revolves around the cow and the land. His cows graze on perennial grass pastures. Insects rely on the grasses and flowers. Birds rely on the insects. There is no need for artificial ploughs because worms do that job, bringing nutrients from deeper in the ground to the surface as they work. Friction is everywhere in his dairy world. 

Contrast his approach (and that of the minority of dairy farmers) with the one adopted for more than 90% of US milk production, where cows are housed in barns. Hay is brought in to the barns to feed the cows; there is little need for them to move. They do get a form of exercise when they are walked down to the milking shed before being returned to the barn. The operation is efficient… and is designed to minimize friction.

He and I continued to explore this theme and our conversation turned to teams in business. Most of us would acknowledge that teams with variety are going to be ‘better’. We see this in sport every week. Any team composed of too many players with one skill means a less rounded group; results swiftly illustrate the imbalance. In business, however, where feedback for the team is more opaque, homogeneity can last a long time. Without such direct feedback it can be hard to break our natural inclination to work with people who are just like us. Friction means effort (at least until we’re used to it). And it doesn’t help that we’re also wired to be lazy. 

It’s hard work if you are process-driven, trying to do things the right way as your results-driven colleague is so focused on the end product that concepts like proper method, documentation, and communication are thrown out the window. It’s hard work if you are a lateral thinking creative type but you’re being asked to work in a logical, rigid, structured manner. It’s hard work if you like putting your head down on your own and ploughing through your duties but meetings require everyone to contribute and ‘share’. Varied teams are ripe with friction. Instinctively we avoid it and yet we also acknowledge that varied teams are likely to be more robust, more flexible, and more successful.

These business teams are a microcosm of the dairy man’s dream. In his dream, we have reclaimed our sense of community through increased face to face interaction. We get to see the truth of our being by looking at ourselves through the many eyes of those with perspectives other than our own. 

Too much friction is like slamming on the breaks but a little friction can be enough to generate a spark when we need a small fire. We should challenge a situation if it seems wrong rather than make like an ostrich and bury our head in the sand. And don’t we rub our hands together – like Mr Myagi healing Daniel in “The Karate Kid” – if we’re feeling the cold? Friction can mean warmth, or even healing? Friction means more self-knowledge and a better understanding of one another? Friction means more nutritious milk? Maybe the world does need more friction.

If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?

~ Rumi


When people willingly tattoo a company logo on their person

Fans of Apple, or Nike can queue for hours, or even days when a new product is released. In addition to the products themselves they might zealously slap stickers with the logo all over their belongings, but even advocates of these brands are unlikely to tattoo the company logo on their person. However, there is one brand where this happens. The company doesn’t pay these zealots, in fact you could even argue the zealots pay the company.

Ironman is an organization that runs endurance events. They are responsible for the Singapore Marathon, the Bordeaux Marathon, and in 2017 they bought the company running the Rock n Roll endurance races. However, it’s for triathlons that they are best known, and their swim-bike-run event in Kona, Hawaii is the race all the top athletes want to enter and win. Merely qualifying for the Hawaii event is a crowning achievement.

The full distance triathlon, with which their name has become synonymous, will usually begin at 7am with an hors’ d’oeuvres of 2.4 miles of open water swimming. You’ve little time to digest that before moving on to the main course, a 112 mile bike ride. Dessert, if you have the stomach, is a full marathon. The total distance is just over 140 miles, or 226 kilometres. Cut-off time is midnight, or 17 hours.

There are plenty of full distance triathlons around the world, but only those run by Ironman can officially call themselves an “Ironman triathlon”. You know a brand has truly made it in the minds of the public when the company name or product line has replaced the more generic noun or verb. Think Scotch tape instead of sticky tape, to Hoover instead of to vacuum, Kleenex, Xerox, etc. If you are a man going through a midlife crisis then you refer to a “full distance triathlon” as an “Ironman” regardless of whether it is run by the Ironman organization. (It trips off the tongue more smoothly than the alternative, and it has the added bonus of sounding Marvel-cool.)

Participants don’t take the event lightly. Anyone who is serious about successfully completing an Ironman triathlon will start formal training for a September event in April, and should already have some base level of fitness. There are days they need to train twice, and as race day nears the weekends become almost wholly given over to ever longer bike rides and ever longer runs. (The swimming will commonly be during the week.) By the time of race day participants might expect to have run over 500 miles in training, and biked in excess of 2,000 miles.

The financial cost is not light either once you’ve paid for: triathlon clothing, a separate wet suit, goggles, bike, bike shoes, bike helmet, replacement bike parts, bike maintenance, running shoes, coaching fees, physical therapy, massage, anti-chlorine shampoo, anti-chaffing cream, expensive go-faster sunglasses, energy bars, energy gels, energy drinks, and probably dental bills as well considering all of that sugar. The race fee itself is not inconsiderable, and since races are rarely on your doorstep you may also need to incur air fare, car rental, bike shipment costs, and accommodation all before the requisite trip to the tattoo parlor. Write out a check for $2,500, but be prepared to pay more.

It’s no wonder, after such commitment, such sacrifice, and such expense, that finishers want to brand themselves with evidence of their achievement. It’s common to find the Ironman logo painted on a bulging calf, but there are many body parts selected for the ink, and even more variations on the logo design, perfectly reflecting the diversity and individuality of those undertaking the journey.

It would be easy to think the participants are all lean, muscled men with too much money, too much time on their hands, and too much testosterone but in truth the participants are a glorious pot pourri of age, gender, race, nationality, faith, political persuasion, ego and physique. What they do all share is their commitment to the journey and a desire to test themselves in this way. I would also speculate that the majority are competitive, over-achievers and I wouldn’t be surprised if even their blood is type A.

However, few compare their finish times — they just want to make the cut-off — because everyone is on their own journey. The support for one another at such events is palpable… and addictive. Although not always visible, it’s understood that each has their own obstacles to navigate and so comparing times is an exercise in futility. Comparing is not the point. Whether you have five children or none, one kidney or two, one leg or two, this diverse group of people just want to come together and see what they themselves are made of; everyone trains and races to the beat of their own drum. There is even room for my friend, Don, who definitely does not have type A blood.

Knowing that my friend Don was doing such an event later in the year, but knowing little about these undertakings at the time, I naively asked him if he had a finish time in mind. He quipped, “I want to cross the line at 11:59pm”.

I had heard the largest cheer is reserved for the last person to make it across the line before the midnight cut-off, but Don is not a seeker of the limelight. I was confused. He continued, “If I finish earlier then I have probably tried too hard.”

He went on with his dry assessment of the day, “There is also the added benefit of value for money; these things are exPENsive! The longer I spend on the course, the more of their food and drink I consume, the more I will have got for my dollar. It’s all about dollars per hour.”

Don didn’t win but he did finish. I don’t know his time either but it was probably too fast for his liking, although in a ranking of value for money I expect he was way up there. When anyone asks him his time he might shrug, or he might tell them, it probably depends on their blood type. The time is irrelevant anyway.

He has earned the label without needing to mark himself. He said it wasn’t necessary because HE knew what he had done, and that was the most important thing. When he said that, I thought about our hidden allegiances, our hidden tribes, and I thought about Don’s humility.

He smiled. “Some of those tattoos are really pretty cool though. They just aren’t for me.” I looked back at him, standing there in his Ironman hat, his Ironman t-shirt and his rather pricy Ironman finishers’ jacket, drinking coffee from his Ironman mug, and I found myself nodding.

When we cheer on marathon runners, are we applauding the right thing?

A few years ago I returned to my parents’ home after a long run. I was training for a marathon. Early one Sunday morning and covered in sweat and spit (but having taken off my shoes) I shuffled into the family living room. My father and brother were seated on comfy furniture engrossed in the newspapers. My father looked up, smiled, and asked me, “how far did you go?”

“Seventeen miles, I replied.”

My brother casually dipped the top of the broadsheet he was reading and without missing a beat inquired, “did you take my car or mum’s?”

We can always rely on family and close friends to keep our feet on the ground, and to remind us that sometimes what we do is not normal. 

I’m writing this on the eve of the 2018 Chicago marathon. Most of those taking part will have been in formal training for over four months. Chicago has a large number of group training programs, which is lucky because it helps to have coaching, it helps to have peer support, and because misery loves company.

Towards the beginning of training the athletes may run 15 miles a week. As they progress through the program this can climb to peak in excess of 40 or 50 miles. Their bodies are being pushed beyond what were once were limits. As new thresholds are breached, successes are celebrated. As unexpected injuries arise, they are navigated… or commiserated; simply getting to the start line in something close to one piece is a huge win.

On their journey they will learn more about physiology and anatomy than they ever wanted to know: which muscles work in tandem with one another, which joints suffer when a body is out of balance, and how to address weakness in stabilizing muscles through cross-training. They will learn a foreign language with words and expressions such as ‘plantar fasciitis’ and ‘iliotibial bands’. The risk of over-use injury increases with each week if the training isn’t measured. You can’t cram for a marathon. Consistency is key.

In addition to their muscles they are training their gut to absorb an amount of sugar that would make a dentist weep. Post race showers perform a cleansing role – vital to their loved ones – but the hot water also serves to inform them, painfully, which parts of their bodies they need to lube in order to head off sometimes bloody chaffing. And all those miles on their feet will build the calluses needed to protect them on race day; you don’t want to lose this hard-won armor during a pedicure.

What each runner puts into a race is beyond impressive, but this is only part of the story. 

A successfully completed marathon training program takes self-discipline, and it takes sacrifice. The opportunity cost, as economists refer to it, of training for an endurance event is immense; it’s not what you do in order to achieve success, it’s what you give up.

Near constant tiredness means prioritizing sleep wherever possible. If the runner has a family and only a small support network then this is not always an option; there are many days they are flying on vapor. 

Nights out with friends are curtailed, or even put on hold in order to be able to wake up for the weekly long run that can begin at 6am. The alarm goes off even earlier to allow for the obligatory morning movement – one’s bowels must not be rushed. Restrooms are not always an option on some routes, and if your run lasts for 20 miles then…

Other hobbies, past times, and responsibilities are put on ice to accommodate what quickly becomes an inflated time commitment because in addition to the core event listed in the training program, the runner needs to factor in the travel to and from, and stretching immediately following. What the training program also fails to mention is the time required for sports massage, physical therapy, buying new running attire, nutrition,… and the list goes on. Running becomes they only thing they can talk about.

Finally, the role of the support network can’t be understated. It’s not just the runner who is giving up time with their friends, it’s also the friends giving up time with the runner. At home a partner may be taking on more of the chores. And don’t forget the emotional wringer; it’s a roller coaster of joy and misery, delight in hitting goals, doubts when they are missed, or when the athlete needs to start all over again after an injury. It takes a village.

If a marathon takes place in your city, please cheer these people on. Please also know that marathon running is very much like the proverbial iceberg and it’s not just for that one day you’re cheering but also their hidden effort, their hidden sacrifice, and their hidden village. Thank you for your support.


Three pillars for managing change



Turn and face the strange”

David Bowie

We don’t need to be told that change is hard. Any one of us who has started a new school or job, thrown out a cherished but battered item of old clothing, or been dumped by the person who told us we needed to throw out that item of clothing, knows change is hardest when we are given no choice. 

When we suffer, we each find our own coping mechanism, some more mature than others. But now place yourself in a work setting where you may feel more constrained in how you can behave. Take that one step further and put yourself in the shoes of someone instigating change… and then having to ‘manage’ it. How on earth do you do that when few people enjoy being told what to do? Almost none of us wants to be told how to feel, and those of us suffering change are also feeling limited in how we can express our emotions, if only because we’d like to keep our jobs.

There are parallels between managing change inside and outside a business setting because change is about people; it can help us to draw on these parallels. There is an art to managing change but there is also a process. For both leaders and sufferers it can help if we consider three tenets, regardless of whether we find ourselves in an office, a factory, a school, or a family. 

1. Acknowledgment and Sympathy

We cannot have change without loss. Something of the old must be sacrificed in order to make space for the new, and anyone suffering loss needs to go through a form of grief. The extent of that grief will vary from circumstance to circumstance, and from person to person. Losing a favorite pair of shoes is not the same as losing a dear relative, but loss remains loss even if the form, severity, and duration are dramatically different. 

When a business undergoes change, the effect of that change will commonly be assumed or ignored by leaders. Leaders think they ‘get’ you. Their assumptions mean they become diminished in your eyes. They really don’t understand you, just as you don’t get them either. 

When a manager ignores the effect of change it’s rarely a lack of care, and more commonly a lack of realization, a lack of time, or a lack of perspective. When a change is brimming with benefits, it is easy to overlook the possibility of loss. 

If a company is introducing a shiny new IT system, the message from the leaders will commonly be focused on how much easier it will be to work, and how reports will soon be ‘automatic’. They can neglect the seemingly irrational anxiety of the analyst who has to give up their labor-intensive spreadsheet. “What is not to love about this labor-saving new system?”, the leaders are thinking to themselves.

The analyst has invested extra hours in building this glorious data monster. They feel a sense of pride in having overcome the challenge. Moreover, this spreadsheet is just the way they like it: it has right column order, the right sorting,… the right colors. They are invested. It is hard to give up something in which we are invested. It is hard to give up something we have suffered to create, even if it’s a spreadsheet.

Compare this with your partner at home telling you that you need to throw out that tatty old t-shirt. They see something tired, and dated, and which lessens your appearance. What they can’t see is just how damn comfortable it is, nor all the crazy memories that are associated with this item of clothing. 

Each side needs to understand there is loss. Each side needs to listen, without bias. Each side needs to understand the change is founded on a good reason, or what’s the point of all the disruption and heartache.

2. What is the why? What is the vision?

“The way we’re doing things now is rubbish!” is hardly a message that fires up the world for a paradigm shift but it’s a format we hear all too often, presumably because it derives from our own pain. However, in helping others we need to step outside of ourselves a little. Our message needs to coalesce around both a positive reason why, and a clear vision of the future state. 

The why is the push; the vision is the pull. Both are needed. We can see the importance of this bifurcated approach illustrated in the political arena on both sides of the Atlantic. 

When the UK voted to leave the EU – Brexit – there were many reasons why: concerns over immigration, disenchantment with a bloated EU bureaucracy, a greater sense of control over one’s own destiny. It doesn’t help that there are many reasons why rather than a single defining purpose, but the volume and size of each reason does not invalidate a need for change, it only makes a clear and galvanizing vision even more important. As yet there is no such clarity around what the UK is moving towards.

The US, by way of example, is going to be great again, and they are going to build a wall. The leaders have provided a clear and consistent vision, and everyone knows what the vision is. Moreover, the why is also known because the people in pain were the ones who voted for this vision. (The whys in the US are eerily similar to those in the UK: fears over immigration, not wanting to be pushed around by the rest of the world, loss of job opportunities, feelings of being disrespected, unheard and forgotten.)

On the face of it, making the country great again is also a positive message, but what does it mean to be ‘great’? Everyone has an opinion, and that lack of clarity in the vision makes it ripe for being picked apart by opponents.

In business as well as politics, the people undergoing change want to know where they are going and why. Perhaps sensitivity and security preclude business leaders from sharing all the details but they can usually manage expectations: “we’re falling behind our competitors … we’re beginning a project lasting nine months… this will allow us to improve quality and reduce returns by 25%… it means less re-work for you… no loss in personnel… despite our best efforts you will experience some disruption… we’re assessing how much… a series of monthly update meetings we’ll be holding with you…”

If you’re hearing that message you might not like what it says but at least you’ve been shown respect. You’ve been treated like an adult, and all parties can move to the next step in the process together. Through honesty and an element of transparency the leaders have also preserved trust. That is easy to erode and hard to build. If the change is a particularly challenging one trust will become a most precious commodity, and every step should be taken to preserve as much of it as possible and for as long as possible.

Coming back to our old t-shirt, maybe your partner is asking you to throw out that tatty old t-shirt because they care about you. Obviously that care isn’t evident when they yell, “Get rid of that t-shirt; you look like a vagrant!” But perhaps they want the two of you to look good together. Maybe you could be freeing them from worry over what the neighbors are thinking of your fashion sense… or hygiene standards. Maybe your partner shouldn’t care what the neighbors think but maybe they shouldn’t be afraid of spiders either. Simply telling them to stop being afraid won’t make it happen. They have explained the why. They have created a vision of the future state. After that it will be your call on whether your partner’s fears and worries are more important than an old item of clothing.

3. United leadership

Transition is an uncertain time. It’s important that any leadership team (parents, directors in a company, politicians…) act in harmony with one another, that they visibly bring all concerns into consideration, and that they present a reassuring and consistent message to those affected. Easy on paper but not in practice. That’s why good leaders are as rare as hen’s teeth.

If two departments in a company are merging, and one department manager is using the opportunity to make a land grab for power, resources and control, the merger may well go through without a hitch, but it could sow the seeds of resentment and propagate disruption for years to come. It takes insightful and effective leadership by those in authority above this manager to identify the issue and to head it off. 

The UK’s management of Brexit would make a great case study for change management. In addition to lacking a unifying vision, they have divided leadership. At the latest party conference the former Foreign Secretary openly criticized the Prime Minister and her approach to Brexit. This fragility in control has led the party to circle the wagons and they have opted for a unilateral approach in negotiating with the EU. A strong leader, with an inclusive and representative team, could have avoided what we’re now seeing, which might best be described as a repetitive game of  “or-how-about-this?” every time they go back to the negotiating table. Time is running out.

Leaders can do worse than set the right tone, remain consistent, and demonstrate by example. If your child has been wearing the same dress for the past five days, still showing evidence of Monday’s breakfast, you’re not necessarily a bad parent, but it can’t help if daddy is wearing yesterday’s t-shirt smelling of something other than fresh laundry.

Of the three elements in this article, weak leadership is the one where those suffering have the least control over proceedings. However, in the political arena you do have options. You could wait for the next scandal. These come around with great regularity, although many never seem to land a fatal blow. (I’m reminded of a wag who once remarked, “If Bill Clinton had been on the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk.”) You could lead the change yourself – if you have it within you – or you can vote:

Over 40% of people failed to even turn up and vote in the 2016 US presidential elections. In the UK, nearly 28% of people failed to vote in a Brexit referendum that was won by less than 4%.

I guess voting is the inconvenient price we pay for living in a democracy.

The above is far from the entirety of the change management process but without these three – acknowledgement of loss, a why and a vision, and cohesive leadership – you are on (as they say in the UK, and with typical British understatement) ‘a bit of a sticky wicket’.

If you need to give up your spreadsheet, it’s not irrational to be sad. If you are asking your partner to jettison that filthy old t-shirt with 15 years of wonderful memories, be kind, explain why, and listen without bias – don’t assume your reasons obviously outweigh theirs. If you’re guiding others through change be as consistent and as honest as you can. It’s on all of us to manage change. Leaders help sufferers, but sufferer also help leaders, and in so doing, by setting an example to others, become leaders themselves. 

Change is about people and everyone is different. In that regard we are also all the same. It’s a truth that change can be hard, but it’s so much easier with a little kindness, humility, and respect.