If you’ve ever been interrupted at work and found it difficult to concentrate afterward, you’ve experienced the effects of organizational friction. But what you might not have considered is how these small experiences of friction compound to slow down an organization’s operations: meetings that are a bit longer than they need to be, decision-making processes that grind along a little too slowly, and employees who have a bit less energy to tackle important problems each day.
Friction in the workplace is natural. Any time you bring people together, there will be some heat and frustration as they figure out how to work together. But what is not natural, what is in fact very dangerous, is when friction becomes chronic. Chronic friction, known as organizational drag, adds time and effort to processes that should be quick and easy. It can transform a once productive and accomplished company into a company that struggles to get by. And left unaddressed, it can undo years of hard work.
Why is organizational drag so dangerous, and what can organizations do to prevent it from spreading? These two critical questions captivate organizational leaders around the world.
The Dangers of Organizational Drag
Simply put, organizational drag makes a company less efficient and productive. And since effectiveness and productivity are directly linked to profitability, organizational drag can have a direct negative effect on a company’s bottom line.
How do these behaviors bog down operations? Just consider that knowledge workers spend 80-85% of their time in virtual and face to face meetings, and leaders underestimate the collaboration demands placed on their subordinates by at least 50% (Crossman and Gray, 2013). The time, energy, and expertise that goes into these soft commitments add up -- especially when slowed down or befuddled by organizational drag.
Other consequences of organizational drag are more tangible. In the short-term, organizational drag causes planning fallacies, which lead to time delays and cost overruns. These delays and overruns slow down the organization and inhibit a team’s ability to react to new opportunities with agility. Over time, chronic drag limits employee’s ability to innovate and do deep work, eventually damaging a team’s work-life balance and even causing employees to quit.
Common Sources of Organizational Drag
Organizational drag limits productivity, quality of work, and employee morale, and prevents companies from achieving their potential. However, even when it’s clear that friction is having a negative impact on an organization, its source and solution are not as apparent. Here’s a look at common causes of organizational friction and what organizations can do to troubleshoot each:
It should be no surprise that individual people are capable of causing friction. Toxic individuals can wreak havoc on an environment, and so can “rule nazis,” who insist on following protocols no matter how large or small the matter. However, people who cause friction aren’t always huge personalities. Sometimes people who cause friction are just overanxious about making mistakes, or still reeling from being disciplined from a past mistake.
One big-picture solution for this kind of organizational drag is to hire individuals who remove friction and easily get things done. Identify your company's existing “smooth operators” and use their experiences to inform your job interview questions. Then identify their shared characteristics to inspire additions your job listings.
2. Interruption and Attitude Residue
We all know how frustrating it can be to be interrupted when you’re working on a task, and it happens quite frequently in the office: in a study of 36 executives who were followed for half a day, the average amount of time spent before being interrupted was 3 minutes and 5 seconds (Mark et al. 2008). These interruptions are more than pauses, though. When people switch from one task to another, they still think about the old uncompleted task, and the more the attentional residue, the lower is task performance (Leroy, 2009).
It can be difficult if not impossible to completely control how and when employees can interrupt each other. However, there are small things you can do to enable employees to limit sporadic interruptions and spend more focused time working throughout the day, such as limiting how often employees check or refresh email, establishing quiet hours for certain times of the day, or establishing open office hours for certain times of the day.
3. Backward Incentives
Companies can also unknowingly incentivize employees who add friction, leading to increased organizational drag. After all, the more emails you send, the more it looks like you’re working, and the more office initiatives you start (necessary or not), the better you look to your superiors, right? In economics, this is called “the tragedy of the commons,” and it refers to situations in which the incentives that help you individually get ahead in your career add more friction to the overall system.
This is another source of organization drag that you can’t completely eliminate. However, you can make small changes to reverse the damage backward incentives can have over time. Stop responding positively to added friction, even if it looks good on paper. Reward employees for getting rid of programs and tasks that decrease efficiency and increase workload. And, when you identify the biggest sources of drag within your organization, incentivize actions that limit their effects.
With so many companies sharing what they do and how they do it (and sometimes even how much they’re paying their employees), it can seem like transparency has become a universal business value. However, consider that the most secretive organization in the world (and the most successful) is Apple -- where not every hand knows what the other is doing. There are benefits to maintaining a certain level of transparency, but giving too many people too much information can increase employee’s cognitive load and slow down communication and activity to a dangerous extent.
It may go against our deeply-ingrained corporate instincts, but the solution to this source of organizational drag is to limit the flow of information between individuals and among teams. Team leads should carefully evaluate meeting rosters and ask themselves if everyone on the list really needs to attend the meeting, and company-wide (or even team-wide) “stand up” meetings may need to bump from a weekly to a monthly or quarterly schedule. Keep information on a “need to know” basis so that those that don’t need to know are free to get work done.
Speaking of increased cognitive load -- collaboration is another highly valued corporate value that can lead to increased friction and organizational drag. Just consider how collaboration burdens your best employees, who often take on extra work or leadership responsibilities just to complete a task they could otherwise complete alone. It’s a quick way to burn out your best employees without getting a lot of work done.
The solution to organizational drag caused by excessive collaboration is simply to evaluate how often you ask your team to collaborate on projects. While collaboration is sometimes worth the drag it causes, it should always be a calculated decision and not a default.
Friction isn’t always a bad thing. In small doses, it forces you to think about what you’re doing, and it helps you make decisions slowly and consider all of the alternatives. However, there are no upsides to the kind of chronic friction that causes organization drag; it will only prevent your organization from achieving its goals and making the best use of its resources. That’s why it’s critical to carefully watch for signs of friction within your organization and take action when you see signs of organizational drag.
The content in the article is based on the research and teaching of Stanford University’s Hayagreeva Rao, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering. For more information about continuing education in topics like this relating to innovation and entrepreneurship, visit the Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Professional Certificate and Courses minisite.