Leadership & Management

The Function of Friction: How to Use Obstacles to Your Advantage

Professor Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao explains why resistance isn’t always a bad thing.

February 28, 2024

Friction — that’s Professor Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao’s favorite term for the forces that hamper workplace efficiency. But as he says, some friction can be helpful — if you know how to use it.

In his new book, The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder, Rao and coauthor Professor Robert I. Sutton (by courtesy) explore how operational obstacles show up in the workplace and, more importantly, what we can do about them. Through what Rao calls “friction fixing,” leaders can “take out the bad friction to make the right things easy to do and put in good friction to make the wrong things harder to do.”

As Rao discusses with host Matt Abrahams on this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, leaders can eliminate bad friction through good communication. “Communication matters a lot,” he says. “The simple rule is, make sure a 10-year-old can understand it on the first try.”

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: To become our best selves, the most creative and generous, we must focus on friction. I’m Matt Abrahams. I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

Today I am thrilled to speak with my GSB colleague and friend, Huggy Rao. Huggy studies collective action within organizations and in markets. His research and teaching focus on scaling up mobilization, innovation, and talent in organizations. Huggy teaches many popular classes, including people operations, from startup to scale-up. He also has written several helpful and popular books, including Scaling Up Excellence, Getting to More Without Settling for Less, and Market Rebels: How Activists Can Make or Break Radical Innovations. Along with his partner in crime, Bob Sutton, he has a new book out called The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder.

Well, Huggy, it is so good to have you on the podcast. Welcome. I’m excited to continue what we have done many times before, have fun in educational conversations.

Huggy Rao: It’s a delight to be here. Thank you so very much for having me here, Matt. I’m very much looking forward to our conversation.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Are you ready to get started?

Huggy Rao: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: Let’s do it. You have done a lot of research, teaching, and writing about best practices for how companies can best scale. Can you share some of these practices? And what role does communication play in successfully scaling businesses?

Huggy Rao: That’s a great question, Matt. One of the big aha’s for us, when Bob and I wrote Scaling UP Excellence, was scaling is actually about the mindset. In fostering and sustaining the mindset that we want, communication plays a critical role, because, as you scale, the problem with mindset is voltage [loss]. I think Howard Schultz put it really very well when he was the CEO of Starbucks for the first time. He said, “Hey, we grew from 1300 to 13,000 stores,” and of course, they could tell you the margin on a macchiato, but they forgot somebody, namely the customer, and that’s the problem, in a sense. When we really think of mindsets, communication does play a very central role.

A lot of the difficulty I have with the way corporate leaders communicate, their mindset is they tend to use very abstract language that doesn’t strike a chord, or at worst, it’s confusing. You do a random search of companies and look at their values. Integrity plays a role. I don’t know about you. When I see the word “integrity,” my reaction is typically one of confusion. What does that mean? Does that mean I tell you the truth when you ask me a question, or I tell you the truth even before you ask me a question? I mean, there are different kinds of integrity we talk about. So communication matters a lot.

Now, there’s also another aspect of scaling, which, for us, was a revelation, and the revelation was scaling isn’t more of the same. Scaling is like reinvention. The person who really encapsulated it well was a senior executive at Uber when we wrote a case study. We asked him a simple question. “Hey, how long have you worked in this company?”

The guy looks at us and says, “I’ve been working in this company for four years, but you know what? Feels as though I’ve worked for 16 different companies.” That just tells you immediately, each quarter, Uber is a different company. 100,000 rides is one company, quarter million rides a different company. So it tells you, as you become larger and larger and larger and larger, the premium on simplicity and emotional resonance really goes up.

Often I tell people, “Look, when you want to say something, when you want to do something, the simple rule is make sure a 10-year-old can understand it on the first try.”

Matt Abrahams: When it comes to scaling, it actually, from a communication point of view, is about simplifying. It’s about being clear. It’s about being very specific. The temptation, I think, as you get bigger, is to add more and more detail, when in fact being specific, clear, and concise is what makes a difference.

Huggy Rao: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: You and I first collaborated, Huggy, on a case study you ended up documenting on the value of simplification in a complex work environment. I know communication played a really critical role in that. Can you briefly talk about that case and any key learnings that you like to share from it?

Huggy Rao: First, thank you for the wonderful opportunity that you presented. I’m glad we went on that adventure.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Huggy Rao: We certainly learned a lot. For me, what was striking was how they created a social movement to actually take out what we refer to bad friction. Friction is simply obstacles. This young woman, who was your wonderful contact, Pushkala Subramanian – so she was able to bring together a team of 40 people, and what they did was they actually went back to basics, but most importantly, they didn’t approach anything with an efficiency orientation. In that endeavor, as AstraZeneca, they saved the company two million hours. Two million hours, roughly speaking, would be equivalent to around 1248 FTEs, given the cost accounting conventions at AstraZeneca. They weren’t interested in saving 1248 jobs. They were interested in saving two million hours and giving it back as a gift.

You can imagine, when something is presented and given to people as a gift of time, what do people do? They reciprocate. The research on gift-giving says, if I give you a gift worth a buck, Matt, you likely are going to respond with a gift anywhere between 3 to 7 dollars. For me, that was a very powerful lesson, because what it taught me a lot about was the crushing role of time poverty in companies. Time poverty leads to burnout. The problem is we’re making it very hard for employees to choose a more curious and generous version of themselves. I mean, how can you be curious and ask questions if you’re buried under a [delusion]? I mean, it’s very hard to do that, hard to be generous. And I think presenting it as the gift of time addressed the problem of time poverty. Bob and I interviewed Pushkala in one of the podcasts we did at the School of Engineering, and I asked her, I said, “Was this simply an activity done by elite managers, or did it percolate to the rank-and-file?”

And she told a story that really touched me. Apparently, what was happening, when you go to Astra, people’s work begins at 8 o’clock. Everybody shows up at 7:40, and then there’s a traffic jam, because, at HQ, you got to put your ID card through, and there’s a gate that goes up and down, and everybody comes at the same time and so on. So they had the [World] Simplification Day, and the next day Pushkala goes to work, there’s no traffic jam, and she asks the security guard, if you can believe it – this is a guy who’s not even an employee of AstraZeneca; he’s a contracted employee. And she says, “Hey, what happened to the traffic jam?”

And the guy apparently looked at her and said, “Madam, you had the World Simplification Day yesterday. You’re all about you’re all trying to give people the gift of time.” And he told her, it seems, “I thought I could give you a gift of half an hour every day.”

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Huggy Rao: I mean, can you imagine that? A security guard, a sentry. And I just thought to myself, “That is amazing.”

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Huggy Rao: That is really amazing. And that, in a sense, opened some of the doors for Bob and I to think about what really is the role of leadership in organizations and what really is the role of friction fixing [them].

Matt Abrahams: I love that case study, not just because all the people involved were fantastic, but, for me, what was so fascinating is the strategic choices they made of how to frame it. It could have been efficiency, but no, they looked at hours, and that made it very specific, and people understand hours. You can look at your watch and you can say, “Hey, this is how long.” The way in which they marketed it – there were posters, there were competitions, and it got everybody excited about doing, in some cases, hard work, and I found that fascinating.

Huggy Rao: It was a lovely example, because, as you imply, Matt, the moment you say efficiency, “We’re subtracting,” people think downsizing.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: You’re putting people in the room called fear.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: Instead, you want to put people in the room called gratitude, so that they’re willing to do [more].

Matt Abrahams: Right, and they were incredibly successful. That, to me, was really, really fascinating. We’ve been talking about friction, and your new book with Bob Sutton is The Friction Project. Your introduction’s title is “Why is friction terrible and wonderful?” Can you help us understand the wonderful part? I can get the terrible part. Where’s the wonder in this?

Huggy Rao: Let me quickly level-set what friction is. The simplest way to think of friction is anything that’s an obstacle for you to do your job is basically a source of friction. The bad obstacles and organizations create, as I mention, time poverty. They make it hard for people to embrace their curious and generous [self]. Conversely, employees and decision-makers can easily embrace an overconfident and myopic version of themselves, and there, you strategically have to insert obstacles to slow them down –

Matt Abrahams: Hmm.

Huggy Rao: – so that what they do is they deliberate. They actually think about things a little bit more carefully. That’s the real challenge of being a leader, so all the time, what you are thinking about is “Hey, where do I take out the bad friction to make the right things easy to do? Where do I put in good friction to make the wrong things harder?” In our book, our advice is leaders, when they begin what we refer to as friction forensics – the big question you got to ask is “What kinds of decisions are we making? Are we making difficult and costly to reverse decisions?” Oneway door decisions, like making an acquisition, launching a new product, hiring somebody at the senior rungs of the enterprise in the C-suite. In all of these places, putting in good friction to slow things down is a good idea. Conversely, when the cost of failure is low, decisions can be easily reversed without much cost or consequence. You actually want to strip out as much bad friction as possible, because you want to make it easy for people to do.

Matt Abrahams: I am somebody who loves memorable and powerful phrases, and you use this notion of friction forensics, which I think is perfect. It’s an analogy, and it focuses us in the right way. In your book, you also talk about jargon monoxide.

Huggy Rao: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: I would love for you to define it for our listeners, because I am on a personal mission to reduce jargon and acronyms. So jargon monoxide, I think, is fantastic. Tell us more about it.

Huggy Rao: Our participants who come through our executive programs, as you know, Matt –

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Huggy Rao: – they use very memorable phrases.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Huggy Rao: Jargon monoxide, if I recall rightly, was one of the ones used by one of the executives. When you think of jargon monoxide, first of all, you are talking of a specialized, impenetrable vocabulary. Like monoxide, it suffocates thought, it suffocates conversation, and it really leads to a lot of silence, and that’s the problem in organizations, making simple things super, super, super complicated. Unfortunately, we have perverse incentives to mystify things.

Matt Abrahams: Tell me more. I’m curious.

Huggy Rao: Because how do you convey mastery over something by making it more opaque and harder for you to understand. And that’s what that is. What we need in organizations is simple language. I mean, for me, at an organization of scale, the first test is can a 10-year-old get it. Let me give you an example of what I mean. You could say, “We want to [foster] superior customer service.” People are thinking, like, “What the hell does that mean?”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: “I don’t know what it is. How do I get hold of it?” So you could say that, or you could tell the employees, “Hey, when you do something, make sure you try and put a smile on a customer’s face.” Now, what’s easier to understand?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: To me, that’s the jargon-free, easy, experiential communication. We need to de-jargonize companies, make things simple.

Matt Abrahams: When I talk about acronyms and jargon, I often tell people that the only solution is empathy, is really understanding what’s needed in the moment and addressing the terms in that way.

Huggy, I have seen you teach. You are a master at telling stories. I’m going to ask you to get meta for a moment. When you think about the information you want to get across and the stories and analogies you want to use, what are you thinking? What’s that thought process? Because I think we could all benefit from some of the tools you use in terms of storytelling and analogy. Can you reflect on your process?

Huggy Rao: Yeah. For me, what really is the goal of a story? When I think of the goal of a story, one way to think about it is, well, it’s to actually inform.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Huggy Rao: Well, what we really want people to do is we want people to not just be informed, but to imagine.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Huggy Rao: So we’ve got to take them on a little mental time travel, and the story is like a great vehicle to engage in that mental time travel, because you’re taken away from the press of your immediate circumstance and surrounding. The first thing is, can a story actually re-situate the member of the audience? The second thing is any story ought to be effective, ought to create moral elevation, because, if you’re not elevated morally, it’s hard to do much. The other is stories also give insight to people. So what’s the insight? Stories also create connectivity. There’s evidence – one study, for example, shows, if you expose people to the same story and you take functional magnetic resonance images of their brain, the same portions of the brains of people light up. Then what you can do is you can compute correlations amongst the brains to see how much of a shared brain there is in the company, and that’s what stories do.

Matt Abrahams: That’s so powerful in terms of – the idea is to educate, is to get people focused and a shared view. I love this idea of moral elevation. A lot of people, when they talk about storytelling – they talk about emotional connection, but this notion of moral elevation, I think, adds even more insight into what effective storytelling is.

Huggy, I want to go back a little bit in time. I know you did some research on job titles. One of the ways that we identify ourselves and we identify others is by the roles and titles they have. Can you share a little bit about that research you did and the impact it had?

Huggy Rao: Absolutely. The key thing, when you scale a company, is you’ve got to create felt accountability. It’s got to be felt in the gut. Felt accountability has two pillars. People should feel, “Hey, I own the place,” but at the same time, you all sort of feel the place owns you. So there’s obligation that always tempers the feelings of psychological ownership. In this experiment, what we did was we created an example of we inserted good friction.

What did we do? We took 82 new venture teams, randomly put them into two groups, 41 in the control condition and 41 in the treatment condition. All of these were tech startups. Every team had four people. We told everybody, “Hey, your job is to build a new product. We’ll get expert judges from the outside to evaluate it.” But to the 41 people in the treatment condition, we introduced good friction by telling them, “Hey, before you start building the new product, take a little bit of time. Think of a job title that showcases your best strengths. And you can choose any title that you want. Think of the title; share it with your colleagues; and then go and build a product.” Since these were all tech startups, people chose titles like “guru of cybersecurity,” “defender of the source code,” “queen bee of customer service,” “chief mischief maker,” “chief instigator,” all kinds of names, titles like that. They shared them.

Who do you think did better at the end? Teams where people chose their own titles or teams where people didn’t? Predictably, the teams that chose their own job titles did far better. Why was that? One is that feeling of ownership. “I chose my title. It’s part of me. But if I tell you I’m the guru of cybersecurity, I’m fostering an expectation in you saying I’m good at it, and I got to live up to that.” All of a sudden, we got obligation in the picture. So a simple thing like this both amped up obligation, amped up ownership, and led to superior performance. Introducing good friction really does pay off.

Matt Abrahams: I’m going to have a new title for myself. I am the collector of communication wisdom, and I am going to have to live up to that, and all of our listeners, and you, Huggy, will keep me to task.

Huggy Rao: I love that. If I can be mischievous, I love the title of the collector of communications wisdom. I think of you as like a treasure hunter for that wisdom.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I like that. I like that better. I’m going to put my Indiana Jones cap on –

Huggy Rao: There you go.

Matt Abrahams: – and I’m out.

Huggy Rao: You got it.

Matt Abrahams: I’m out. Excellent.

Huggy Rao: You got it.

Matt Abrahams: Huggy, this has been an amazing talk. Before we end, I’d like to ask you three questions, two of which I ask everybody and one I create just for you.

Huggy Rao: Oh my God.

Matt Abrahams: Are you up for that?

Huggy Rao: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: In looking at your own life, having written a book about friction –

Huggy Rao: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: – is there anything you have changed to reduce friction in your own life?

Huggy Rao: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: What is it?

Huggy Rao: Before I do anything, I always ask myself, “Is this activity going to recruit my curious and generous self?” If it does, I’m all in. If it doesn’t, I just don’t go to that meeting. I don’t participate in things. It’s just not for me.

Matt Abrahams: Well, then I am honored that you chose to spend your time here. I hope we’re fulfilling both your curiosity –

Huggy Rao: Indeed.

Matt Abrahams: – and then certainly your generosity.

Huggy Rao: Indeed. In fact, you’ve been both generous and curious, so thank you.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, excellent. Whew. That’s good. Question number two. Who is a communicator that you admire, and why?

Huggy Rao: The communicator I would say I admire the most probably is the wonderful American social activity Saul Alinsky. Saul Alinsky was a labor organizer –

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Huggy Rao: – and most of the time organized people who felt they had no hope; they had no power; they simply didn’t matter. How do you get these people to realize they matter? Alinsky was really a master at doing that. I’m just going to give the listeners one simple example of what he did. This was during the times of the senior Daley who was the mayor of Chicago.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: He had a machine, and apparently, Alinsky was trying to organize workers, and he asked Daley for time. Daley didn’t even give him the time of day, you know.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: Alinsky did something super clever. He got all these people he was trying to organize, arranged for a bunch of buses to go to O’Hare, and he got them to line up before the men’s and women’s bathrooms, so that they were like eight, ten people, and they would constantly recirculate and enter the queue. Somebody told Daley, “You’ve got all these people clogging up the bathrooms.” Can you imagine in O’Hare?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Huggy Rao: So many planes landing? You can’t go to the loo? I mean, you’d have a mutiny in no time.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: Daley, the moment he found out about it, he said, “Alinsky, where are you?”

Matt Abrahams: Right, and he got the meeting.

Huggy Rao: Of course he got the meeting. It was his way of telling them, “Hey, you have numbers.” Numbers are a source of strength. I admire him because he made people who had no hope actually feel imbued with hope and confidence.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: That’s a hard thing to do [unintelligible].

Matt Abrahams: It’s that moral elevation you talked about.

Huggy Rao: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Huggy Rao: Ideally, if I were to describe my successful communication recipe, I’m going to purloin these three steps from a friend of mine in India called Ramji Raghavan, who leads a nonprofit organization called Agastya, where they teach science to rural children. It’s one of the things that matters a lot to me. The first stage is surprise.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Huggy Rao: “Ah? What’s that again?”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Huggy Rao: You’ve already hooked them with something new and [now]. Then you’ve immediately got to make sure it’s familiar and not alien. So [it] should immediately be followed by “Aha, I got it.”

Matt Abrahams: Hmm.

Huggy Rao: Hopefully, the third step is “Ha ha.” You laugh.

Matt Abrahams: I love, “Ah. Aha. Ha ha.”

Huggy Rao: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: How lovely. That is a classic Huggy example of how you take something very complex, make it simple, and make it memorable, and in many cases fun. Huggy, thank you for this frictionless conversation. Your ideas are impactful in so many spheres, how we scale up businesses, how we connect with people, how we simplify messages, prioritize generosity, curiosity, and time. Thank you, and I wish you and Bob best of luck with your new book, The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder. Thank you, Huggy.

Huggy Rao: Thank you so very much, Matt. My pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford GSB. To learn more about how to make organizations more effective and to scale, please listen to episode 14 with Bob Sutton. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music is from Floyd Wonder. Please find us on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. Also follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram, and check out fastersmarter.io for deep dive videos, English language learning content, and our newsletter.

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