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


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.

Endurance Training vs Project Management

I signed up for a 140 mile endurance event nearly a year ago. The other day, as I close in on race day, I found myself comparing the work that has gone into preparing for this with the work required to deliver a successful IT project. This is how the preparation for the race has gone:

  1. You, your coaches, and those training with you all agree on the goals, and their relative priority.
  2. You build up your capabilities slowly.
  3. Each week you are given specific and measurable step goals against which to deliver.
  4. Feedback is instant, and where goals are undershot (or even overshot), an adjustment is made immediately to compensate.
  5. Everything is documented.
  6. Part of the work out is effort based, but part is knowledge / skills based, so that subsequent effort delivers ever more benefit.
  7. The mood is one of nurturing and encouragement.
  8. There is a cadence of builds and recuperation across the weeks and months, to aid consolidation of the work to date.
  9. Dialogue and openness are constant.
  10. If you don’t do your workouts, the coaches don’t step in and do them for you.
  11. There is both a long term aspect and a short term aspect to the work. The two aspects dovetail.
  12. You have the opportunity to find ways of working that are best for you, but within an established set of common guidelines.
  13. Your focus is absolute, and every decision can be boiled down to one question: “what  is more likely to bring success?”
  14. You are ready weeks before the main event.
  15. The final weeks are gentle affairs with more sleep, and greater time in recovery so that you’re in the best shape for demands of the event itself.

There is an element of comparing apples with oranges in this exercise, but there is enough of an overlap to make me wonder why these elements of an approach proven in sport are not embraced more actively in business. Many projects do follow the points mentioned but if any are neglected, I suspect they come from the first 10 in the list. (Then again, 14 and 15 are surely rarer than we’d like.)

Fighting Battles and Building Cathedrals

Thoughts often come to you that can seem unrelated to your circumstances. I was listening to an audio tour of Amiens Cathedral when I realized that I had never before considered the degree to which we value that things are done, over how they are done.

The Cathedral at Amiens, in Northern France, is the largest in the country. It’s beautiful! Work began on the cathedral nearly 800 years ago, in 1220, with the major works said to have been completed by 1270. However, the trigger for the line of thought I began above was hearing that an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives in the construction; more than one death, every week, for 50 years. Nowadays we see the structure; we don’t have the details behind the ‘who’ or the ‘how’ of those losses.

Thankfully, attrition like that seen at Amiens would be unthinkable these days, but we do see attrition in other ways when insufficient consideration is given to the way we work. Important personnel can be lost from a team either as outright departures, or maybe from having to take temporary medical leave. Beyond the direct effect on personnel numbers, working incorrectly means investing unnecessary time and money. Expending emotional energy also adds drag. The incentives to work correctly are plentiful, and that is without considering the warm feeling that you get when you not only achieve your goals, but do so in a manner that is congruent with your values; otherwise the success, while still treasured, can feel like an opportunity missed.

Off the top of my head, I was finding it hard to think of examples where success is lauded at least as much for the method as for the result, although one that probably qualifies is Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans at Cannae, in 216 BC. The Romans, with around 85,000 men, had a force about 50% larger than Hannibal’s. Depending on the account you read (exact figures are hard to come by in antiquity), the Roman army lost anywhere from 50 to 80,000 men, while Hannibal is believed to have lost in the region of 5,000. The tactics were brilliantly executed, with the victory becoming one of the most emphatic the world would ever see, but it is the manner of the victory that people obsess over. By contrast, Hannibal’s results were short-lived: the battle had been won but Carthage still lost the Second Punic War, and Hannibal ended his life in suicide; Rome endured. The manner of the victory at Cannae became the bigger achievement.

Results count in business, but I have seen more than enough in great method or just sheer guts, even when the goal is not achieved, to know that it is not the only thing. Where the debate runs, is the degree to which things must be done the right way, and whether a missed goal is close enough. That will vary from person to person, and from situation to situation. However, a sense of perspective is never a bad thing, and few of us these days are smiting our enemy in battle, or taking 50 years to build an enormous structure in honor of divinity.