Leadership & Management

Workplace Friction: How to Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder

Stanford professor and acclaimed author Bob Sutton shares insights on how to eliminate unwanted friction in your organization — starting at the top.

December 13, 2023

Welcome to Grit & Growth’s masterclass on friction — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Robert Sutton, Stanford professor in the School of Engineering and best-selling author, has stories and strategies to help you identify the causes of friction, eliminate it, and even learn how to use friction intentionally to create more space for success.

Friction, according to Bob Sutton, “ is simply putting obstacles in front of people that slow them down, that make their jobs more difficult and maybe a little bit more frustrating.” Sutton has written multiple New York Times bestsellers, including The No Asshole Rule, and Scaling Up Excellence with coauthor and Stanford colleague Huggy Rao. His upcoming book with Rao is all about the friction that typically arises after companies scale, and it is appropriately titled The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder.

Sutton’s research shows that friction often starts at the top. Luckily, he has lots of advice for how to become more aware of the power and influence leaders wield and tips for eliminating unwanted friction in your organization.

Seven Masterclass Takeaways

Adopt a trustee mindset.

According to Sutton, “Leaders should be trustees of other people’s time.” This means not just trying to find ways of saving people’s time, but also being aware of how you’re imposing on their time.

Don’t be oblivious.

“Leaders need to be aware of the power and influence they have,” says Sutton, because an offhand comment can send employees on a wild goose chase that costs time, energy, and money. “That’s what happens when people in positions of power…are unaware of their cone of friction.” Leaders also need to acknowledge their blind spots. Many assume that because of their success, they know everything that matters about their organization; what Sutton calls the “fallacy of centrality.” Either way, what you don’t know can certainly hurt you.

Avoid power poisoning.

“When people feel powerful or more powerful than others they tend to focus on their own needs over others and then they act like the rules don’t apply to them,” Sutton says. Friction is almost always the result.

Embrace inconvenience.

Leaders often get the VIP treatment. They don’t have to stand in line or wait on hold. But Sutton says that this “absence of inconvenience…is protecting you from the experience that your customers are facing.” If you don’t feel the friction yourself, how can you address it?

Play the subtraction game.

Sutton suggests approaching problems with a subtraction mindset as an antidote to what he calls addition sickness. He says, “First, make a list of stuff that’s getting in the way and driving you crazy. Okay, so now what are you going to do to get rid of it?”

Fight friction as a team.

“Friction is often an orphan problem that we point at other people, and we tell them it’s their job to fix it,” Sutton says. Given the high-friction nature of friction fixing, he suggests a team effort.

Remember that not all friction is bad.

Sutton acknowledges that some things should be hard, like cheating, stealing, and making stupid decisions quickly. He says “Sometimes, being fast — all that does is get you killed off more quickly. The goal of getting rid of mindless, unwanted friction is to clear the way for the things in life that are hard and should be hard.”

Listen to Bob Sutton’s anecdotes and advice on how to recognize and remove friction in the workplace.

The Friction Project will be released on January 30, and you can pre-order copies of the book now.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Full Transcript

Robert Sutton: The key thing there — and I think this is one reason we’re so interested in subtraction and making things mindless and getting rid of friction — it’s to clear the way for the things in life that are hard and should be hard. So that’s kind of our philosophy.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the podcast where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.

Have you ever applied for a passport? It can be a nightmare. You have to find the right form on a government website. You have to fill it in, come up with all kinds of obscure data that you don’t have readily at hand. You have to print it out because of course you’re going to present this form in person. Then of course you need a passport photo, which is a whole other thing because it has very specific criteria, and God forbid you should smile too much or wear your glasses, they’re going to reject it. And then you’ve got to find your birth certificate and photocopy it and attach both versions to the form. And if you don’t have a birth certificate, God help you. You might as well give up on ever leaving your country again. You put all this together, you submit it, and you don’t know if they’re going to accept it or not, because they might just come back to you and say, oh, you’re missing form 678, 2B, sub 2, and then you’ve got to find that form. And after all of that, you still may not get your passport at all, or you might get it two months after your planned vacation has come and gone. Now, of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m willing to bet anyone who’s ever ordered a passport has experienced something like this. Well, this is a classic example of friction, and it’s not just a problem for passports. So what is friction in the workplace?

Robert Sutton: Well, to me, friction is simply putting obstacles in front of people that slow them down, that make their jobs hard to do, more difficult, and maybe a little bit more frustrating — like yours.

Darius Teter: That is the voice of acclaimed author and Stanford professor Bob Sutton. Bob has written multiple New York Times bestsellers, including Scaling Up Excellence and The No Asshole Rule. His upcoming book, coauthored with Stanford professor Huggy Rao, is all about workplace friction. It’s called The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder. It’s coming out when?

Robert Sutton: January, but you can order it now.

Darius Teter: What is the genesis of The Friction Project?

Robert Sutton: To me, there’s two main geneses. One is rational, the other one’s personal. So the rational one was, okay, Huggy and I write this book on scaling, and there’s all these companies that — Silicon Valley, I’m in the engineering school, he’s in the business school. They start out as little companies and they get huge. It wasn’t that long ago in my mind’s eye that I was sitting in one room in a hotel about a mile from here with the entire Facebook company in one room, 400 people in one room. Google, Salesforce — all these companies we’ve seen scale is, they got larger and more complex, things got harder and harder to do. Our 2014 book was on scaling. Our 2024 book is on friction. It’s not a complete accident. As systems get larger, older, more complex, things get harder and harder to do. So that’s the rational cause. The less rational cause was, well, our dear employer, Stanford University, in the years I’ve been here — I’ve been here 40 years — has made things harder and harder and harder to do.

Darius Teter: Bad friction can grind an organization to a halt, but that doesn’t tell the whole story because friction can be good, too. Sometimes you need to slow down to avoid accidents, including corporate train wrecks. So I want to do — we have a little game we play on the podcast called Lightning Round, True or False.

Robert Sutton: Okay, so …

Darius Teter: These are meant to piss you off. So let’s see. Okay. A zero friction workplace is the ultimate goal for maximum productivity.

Robert Sutton: False.

Darius Teter: Why?

Robert Sutton: Well, because some things should be hard. It should be hard to cheat, it should be hard to steal. It should be hard to make stupid decisions fast. And then as every fraternity, sorority, and military knows, and IKEA: suffering creates its own sort of commitment to the product or the service or the cause or whatever. So suffering isn’t all bad because of the “labor leads to love” effect.

Darius Teter: The labor leads to love. Google provides an example of what happens when you have too little good friction. So you have an example of good workplace friction or where sometimes you need friction. And that gets to the tagline of your book, which is how smart leaders make the right things easier and the wrong things harder. And the example you gave is Google Glass. Sergey Brin was so excited to push to market. It was a half-ass product. It bombed. God knows what it cost. But there were people on the team, presumably, who thought that was a bad idea.

Robert Sutton: Oh, yeah. And as I understand — I’ve talked to people on the team — and people on the team told him it was too early and he said, “No.” And my co-conspirator Huggy Rao and I also use that as an example — and I’m going to sort of swear — of a management cluster fug. But these are situations where leaders get so excited about something, they have the illusion that it’s going to be great. Their impatience and their incompetence turns other people incompetent. And I think it’s a pretty good example of that because when you put people in a position where it’s impossible to do the work, but you push them to do it, well, that’s a friction problem. But it’s also a frustration problem because many of us have been on the path to failure and know it and can’t stop our boss from pushing us there. So it’s a challenge.

Darius Teter: Okay, next lightning round. True or false? Protocols and routines stifle creativity and adaptability.

Robert Sutton: Sometimes. Well, let’s say false — because it’s more fun to say false — because one of the things that they do, and every cognitive psychologist can tell you this, that to do the hard things in life, we’ve talked about some of these: creativity, true love rather than sort of surface commitment. We haven’t talked about the power of emotional bonding. What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to kind of clear the way and have mindless processes that work. One of the most wonderful designers I ever met, this guy’s name is Bill Moggridge. He passed away, but he had the patent on the first laptop computer and got royalties for the clam shape. That was like his design. He had this wonderful expression that the best designs are ones that you notice that you don’t notice. It’s like the difference between — for those who have been to airports — going to the Singapore airport and the Heathrow Airport.

Darius Teter: Oh my God.

Robert Sutton: Because Singapore, I’ve been there about 10 times. I just walk through and —

Darius Teter: And somehow you get where you need to be.

Robert Sutton: And then Heathrow, you wait in line for an hour and a half and then you wait in line for an hour and a half.

Darius Teter: And then you ride a bus like 20 kilometers in circles underground. I’m like, where are we going? How is this terminal five? This must be terminal 55.

Robert Sutton: The worst. But the key thing there — and I think this is one reason why we’re so interested in subtraction and making things mindless and getting rid of friction — it’s to clear the way for the things in life that are hard and should be hard. So that’s kind of our philosophy.

Darius Teter: Such as creative process.

Robert Sutton: Creative process. I mean, Theresa Amabile, who spent 50 years studying creativity, she will show you that when people rush, they may feel more creative, but usually they do worse even when they feel more creative. And I think that creativity is hard and all the evidence is that you fail more. When you do creative work, you have maybe a little bit of unpleasant conflict.

Darius Teter: You have to try six bad ideas to find one that’s truly new or interesting or different or good. Friction gives you time to get things right and see where others made mistakes. So slowing down to win, you bring the example in the book that sometimes first-mover advantage is a trap.

Robert Sutton: And the way we put it is, the second or third or fourth mouse gets the cheese, not the first mouse gets the cheese. So you watch your competitor —

Darius Teter: Because the first three are dead.

Robert Sutton: Yeah, the first three are dead, or maimed. It’s exactly right. You watch your competitor and you learn from it. And some of the methodologies is that Airbnb was not the first couch surfing. And some people may remember Myspace before Facebook. Nobody ever talks about the Netscape browser anymore, from what I can tell. So this idea that sometimes being fast, all that does is get you killed off more quickly. So in the case of AI, in its early days — and this is a positive friction story — so right now we’re in a situation where everybody’s just rushing ahead really fast. AI has got to be a fast mover, first-mover advantage, or we’re dead and all that. And the evidence that they’re seeing is that the people who win in other forms of AI, while they go slow enough to work with the content experts so that they get the right content in it. If you don’t work with the content experts, it can’t just scrape the web and find it. So it turns out that slowing down to win — this is a case where it might be worthwhile.

Darius Teter: So how do you introduce good friction while eliminating bad, or as Bob puts it, how do you make the right things easier and the wrong things harder? Well, it starts with identifying the causes of friction. And through his research, Bob has identified a handful of friction traps, common situations that create unwanted workplace resistance. Okay, the last true and false: most workplace friction comes from out-of-touch executives.

Robert Sutton: Oh, I’ll give them 25 percent of it, so I’ll say false, but with a footnote, which is that we all deserve some blame for it. And sometimes it’s external forces we have no control over. It could be rules, it could be regulations, it could be that, really, you do need 15 accountants to satisfy the terms of the grant because it would, and three lawyers —

Darius Teter: Especially if it’s the European Union.

Robert Sutton: So I would like to blame executives for everything. And we have a whole chapter about how oblivious leaders can cause problems. But I don’t want to give them all the blame or all the credit for fixing it.

Darius Teter: Even if friction doesn’t always come from the top, it can be a good exercise for leaders to look inwards. So I’ve been at the Graduate School of Business now for six years, and I don’t know why, but every five years the school has to be re-accredited. And so some committee of people from other business schools come here and say, you guys are doing okay. Well, I got an email from somebody in the front office, the dean’s office, that said, “We need you to contribute to our accreditation memo, and here’s the topics we need you to cover.” And it was a big list of topics. And so I was like, oh my God, this is really important. It’s my chance to talk about what Seed does at the business school. I immediately assigned four people to work on this, and we created this amazing memo with graphs and charts and annexes. I think the whole thing was 12 pages long. The final memo that went to the accreditation team, there was one sentence from my 12-page, one-month, stupid project. And so when I was reading your book, I was like, God, that is friction.

Robert Sutton: That is what happens when people who are in positions of power are unwittingly unaware of their cone of friction. I suspect nobody intended you to spend a month working on that. You just misunderstood it.

Darius Teter: I’m sure I misunderstood it. I probably should have done some inquiry. And also, what is this cone that you’re describing? I think it’s the number of peasants at the bottom of the village that get punished by the prince’s policies as unaccountable.

Robert Sutton: I also love that example because probably the most prestigious organizational theorist who’s ever been at Stanford is the late James March. He was remarkable, and he used to talk about this thing that I would call executive magnification, that when people are in power, sometimes what happens is people beneath them — to please them or when they don’t understand an assignment — they take it further than was ever intended. And it’s actually a really great thing that leaders need to do — they need to be aware of the power and influence they have and to say things to you like, well, no more than a few sentences will do. Right? To me, that’s a perfect example. And I’ve been a victim of that many times, and I’ve done it to other people as well.

Darius Teter: Let’s face it, some leaders are oblivious by nature, but many more become out of touch as they climb the corporate ladder. We talked briefly about oblivious leaders, and you use the phrase power poisoning. What is that?

Robert Sutton: So power poisoning is that, in general, when people feel powerful or more powerful, they tend to focus on their own needs. They tend to focus less on the needs of others, and then they tend to act like the rules don’t apply to them.

Darius Teter: Or is it that they think that their needs must reflect everyone else’s needs because they’re so successful, so they must have been making good calls all along?

Robert Sutton: Well, yes, and that’s, we call that the sort of centrality problem, which is that the leaders will tend to believe that they know what’s going on in their organization. “It’s my company, I’m CEO,” even though everybody’s afraid to tell them the truth, so they don’t know what’s going on. And then related to that is we call it the absence of inconvenience. That’s the classic thing that when you’re in a position of power, very often, well, you don’t have to wait in line.

Darius Teter: You get the special car, you get the chopper.

Robert Sutton: We were doing some research with General Motors right before they went bankrupt, and we would fly to Michigan. This was right before the meltdown. We’d fly to Michigan and they would just always have one, those days, a new Hummer or the latest Cadillac or SUV, whatever, and they get it gassed, they get it serviced. And they also had this thing that the more senior the executive you were, the fancier car that you got. And I actually got in trouble for complaining. I said, this is protecting you from the experience,

Darius Teter: From the friction that your customers are facing in trying to buy your car. So that’s a way to generate this centrality. And what is the absence of —

Robert Sutton: Absence of inconvenience?

Darius Teter: Absence of inconvenience. Every airline executive should have to be in boarding group six at least once to combat friction. Leaders have to recognize a core, but often unspoken, responsibility to their staff. One of the things that you said is that there are three convictions required of friction fixers, and I think the one that I thought might actually make a cool core value is, “We are trustees of other people’s time.”

Robert Sutton: Yes, yes. That’s the main idea of the book, I think.

Darius Teter: Right? Say a bit more about it.

Robert Sutton: Well, to us, “the trustees of other people’s time,” it doesn’t just mean that you make things easy, but it’s always being aware of how you’re imposing on other people’s time and doing it more mindfully because almost everything starts with that. And that includes when to go slow, when to go fast, that is really a big part of that. So to us, a trustee in the example that we started out with is Winston Churchill a month before the blitzkrieg started in 1940, writing a note to bureaucrats saying, please make things shorter. And at one point he said something like, the length and complexity of a memo is not an indicator of a diplomat’s excellence.

Darius Teter: It was the first paperwork reduction act.

Robert Sutton: And like the other ones, it didn’t work either. By the way, is that right? When he became prime minister again in the fifties, he complained that things were even worse despite his efforts.

Darius Teter: I mean, some of the other things you can do to be a respectful trustee of people’s time, one is of course being aware of how your decisions impact everyone else. I will make it safe for myself and others to be absent, focused, and in the flow. That one really touched me because I’ve got Slack, I’ve got text messages, I’ve got my email, I’m just being bombarded, and so is everyone else.

Robert Sutton: And organizations have done some things like that. One of the things that I, like the famous Adam Grant, has written about this is to try to create organizational norms where when somebody doesn’t answer your email within an hour and a half, that you’re not allowed to write them four more emails. Because the more you send, the more you receive, and the faster you respond, and you end up with a whole system that ends up being clogged up. I think that that’s part of it.

Darius Teter: Friction can arise from something as simple as the language we use. Another one of your friction problems is jargon monoxide.

Robert Sutton: Oh, jargon monoxide. Well, we’re having fun with that.

Darius Teter: You have convoluted crap, meaningless bullshit, in-group lingo, and jargon mishmash syndrome. My favorite is meaningless bullshit, because the way you describe it is “empty and misleading communication that is meaningless both to the bullshitter and the bullshit meeting,” which is so true.

Robert Sutton: To us, the trustee’s mindset is really important. And in some of those things, as I say, you are not just saving people’s time, but being aware when you’re imposing on people or not.

Darius Teter: I don’t know if this is urban legend, but I remember hearing about some college student getting a paper back and the grade was an F, and the professor wrote, “You’ve written 10 pages of bullshit. If you’d given me only three, I would’ve given you a C.” I hope it’s true.

Robert Sutton: I hope it’s true, too.

Darius Teter: You also talk about much abused and overused words that no longer mean anything. What’s your favorite?

Robert Sutton: It’s agile, and I could, by the way, to pick my own, world design thinking. But let’s go after agile. And the example we use is there was an Australian consultant who gives this talk, and apparently he’s still giving this talk, that he defines 40 different kinds of agile in 40 minutes, which sounds really pretty fun. And I’ve got this great —

Darius Teter: And he thought he was doing something informative and interesting.

Robert Sutton: It is an amazing topic.

Darius Teter: He wasn’t making fun of himself.

Robert Sutton: No, no, no, no. It was meant seriously. It’s kind of a beautiful talk. But to us, that’s what happens when an idea gets overly adopted in too many different ways. And then, bless her heart, one of my friends has written a book about emotional agility, and it’s really a cool book, but it’s like another use of the word agile. So that’s another kind of the jargon mishmash syndrome, when something devolves that it means so many things to different people, it means nothing. And the agile software manifesto, which was the starter that actually meant something, it just got diluted and distorted over the years.

Darius Teter: People will take the artistic license with the term. So why should we care about jargon monoxide? Well, just imagine you’re in a meeting and you think you have a common understanding of the task at hand, but in fact, each of you is operating under a different definition of the problem. Friction also happens when coworkers or teams rub each other the wrong way, and that’s where things can get nasty. What is cookie licking? I think my older brother was a cookie licker. I just want to double-check the cookie.

Robert Sutton: It comes from the notion that, you know, what little kids will do is lick all the cookies so they’re all theirs.

Darius Teter: And no one will want to touch them.

Robert Sutton: No one wants to touch ‘em, calling dibs. So other people can’t get it. But where this happens in organizations is that people, especially in power, will become bottlenecks and not even realize that they will insist on reviewing things. They’ll insist on interviewing people or they will insist— and this is where it comes from, Microsoft in particular — they’ll call dibs on a product feature. And even though they’re not the right group to do it and they keep putting it off, it never gets done.

Darius Teter: They want to make sure no one else gets credit. So they grab it and then it dies.

Robert Sutton: And one thing that we haven’t talked about is coordination problems, which were a huge cause of friction. Sort of the star of the book in terms of coordination problems would probably be Satya Nadella at Microsoft. In that case, a lot of the dysfunctional friction was caused by just a refusal to cooperate in the organization.

Darius Teter: Was that what you call broken connections?

Robert Sutton: Yes. So there’s two levels of broken connections. There’s ones where I don’t give you the information just because I’m too busy or I’m too focused. And then there’s the one where I don’t give you the information, or I even lie to you, because I hate you. And the second one was sort of the Microsoft culture.

Darius Teter: This is where people were doing the cookie licking. They would bid on a project or grab ownership of a project that they may not ever touch.

Robert Sutton: Yes, yes. And so in 2014, to tell you a brief story, I gave a talk there on scaling, right after Satya took over and they were really talking openly about their dysfunctional internal competition. It was to the operating systems group. And I got this little tour and they showed me this Microsoft phone, and I said, oh, what happened to that? They said it was a complete flop. And I said, so what happened? And I said, you work with Apple and stuff? And he said, well, we don’t hate Apple, but we hate the people in the phone group. So we’ll cooperate with Apple grudgingly, but we’ll actively undermine the phone group. And he said, that’s the culture that Satya is trying to fix. And Satya has made huge progress.

Darius Teter: You have to repair these broken connections because fighting friction is a team effort. And sometimes the people you assume are your blockers may actually turn out to be your biggest allies.

Robert Sutton: It is easier to blame people, but from our perspective, it’s trying to help one another fix things rather than blame things — that is when things end up being useful. Now, that doesn’t mean that there are some people who are not so useful that you might not want to waste your time with, but that doesn’t mean you have to be cruel to them and blame them. For us, one of the root causes, and Huggy’s really obsessed with this, my coauthor, is the notion that friction is often an orphan problem that we point at other people and we tell ‘em it’s their job to fix it. And that’s why sometimes having specialists in the Apple culture, they have the DRI: directly responsible individual.

Darius Teter: That’s not about where they sit in the org chart, it’s about a task that they own.

Robert Sutton: Yes, yes.

Darius Teter: There’s a whole section of your book about who are your allies. What’s the pyramid of people that can support you in fighting friction as a leader?

Robert Sutton: The most impressive case to me in the book is an effort led by Michael Brennan to fix a — it’s a benefits form that was filled out by 2.5 million Michiganders a year and a thousand questions, 42 pages long.

Darius Teter: For some social welfare benefit.

Robert Sutton: Well, it was for almost anyone, whether it be for food, financial assistance, medical care, you had to complete this form. My favorite question was: When was your child conceived? So, okay, think about how hard it is.

Darius Teter: That is so funny.

Robert Sutton: And to the credit of the group that oversaw it at Michigan, they got the head of it into a room and he couldn’t even get to page eight. So he realized it was a problem and they all worked together. But the part about high friction was, so the new form was 80 percent shorter, which is a huge cut and had all these positive effects, but there were 1,700 pages of rules that they had to satisfy before the form could be legal and could actually be used. So they had to pull over for six months and work —

Darius Teter: To deal with this other friction process.

Robert Sutton: Yes. Yeah, to work with the lawyers, work with the people who understood all the forms in both federal and state rules, but without those six months, they would not have gotten rid of friction for 2.5 million Michiganders a year to complete those forms

Darius Teter: Incredible.

Robert Sutton: It’s not easy business always.

Darius Teter: Presumably most of the people who were working in that agency knew that form sucked.

And in fact, no one was running around defending page 47.

Robert Sutton: No, no, nobody was. And they would say it was because of the rules, which were true and how difficult it was to change and everything. But the interesting thing about that was Adam Selzer, one of the cofounders with Michael Brennan of Civilla — it’s the nonprofit in Michigan that led this effort — he said when he first started working with the civil servants and the government leaders, he just viewed them as these sort of hapless bureaucrats. But once he started working with them, he said they knew it sucked, too. They wanted to help. They were absolutely wonderful. So to me, that’s a message that it’s easy to blame bureaucracy and civil servants, but those people, they want to make things better for citizens, too.

Darius Teter: Perhaps the most pervasive friction is caused by our tendency to add more: more product features, more detailed processes, more guidelines. The one that really captured my mind was what you call addition sickness. Hit me. What is addition sickness?

Robert Sutton: There’s a whole bunch of forces in our brains and in our social systems that make our default problem-solving style addition, not subtraction. There’s a bunch of experiments done by a group at University of Virginia, everything from how to fix a university, how to fix a Lego model, a soup recipe. They had all these different things that the default problem solving style is addition. So that’s the first problem: that our brains go there.

Darius Teter: And is that part inertia? I don’t want to rock the boat. Somebody put a lot of time into this previous process, so it’s easier to add than to challenge.

Robert Sutton: Well, that might be some of it. There’s also the argument that many organizations, including our employer, reward people based on addition, not subtraction. My favorite example is that the more people who work for you in most organizations, whether the organization needs them or not, the more you’ll get paid and the more power you’ll have. It’s a sign of power.

Darius Teter: God help the individual contributor.

Robert Sutton: God help the individual contributor. And I would also say, snidely, that’s why Stanford now seems to have about as many administrators as students, and that faculty do not get rewarded for the number of people who work for them, but staff members do.

Darius Teter: I think one of the reasons we are much more likely to add new products, new features, new processes, always in the name of improvement, is because it’s easier to do that than to challenge the status quo. I’d like to think of it as subtraction aversion. If you’re going to stop doing something, that means you have to take on whoever the person was on your team or in your organization that created that thing in the first place. So it’s always going to be easier to come up with a great idea that’s new and additive rather than challenge the ideas that were already there. The antidote to addition sickness is what Bob calls a subtraction mindset.

Robert Sutton: So those forces are there. That’s the bad news. But I think we should talk about the good news because there’s lots of organizations that do overcome this and do subtraction, and we have lots of examples of how it actually works.

Darius Teter: So I want to dig right in there. You have some subtraction tools, and I want to go through some of them. You mentioned subtraction rituals.

Robert Sutton: Yes.

Darius Teter: And a colleague of mine, she described a previous employer, they have something called Halloween End of Life Party where they celebrate things they’re not going to do anymore.

Robert Sutton: Oh, that’s fabulous.

Darius Teter: They’ll even read a eulogy to the dead project or whatever the initiative is that is now being stopped. And I thought, well, that’s a great example of a subtraction ritual.

Robert Sutton: We’ve done this with 120, 125 groups by now. Wow. We call it the subtraction game. And what we do is we get ‘em in a room and we have them first make a list of stuff that’s getting in the way and driving them crazy. And then we say, okay, so now what are you going to do to get rid of it? And sometimes they just bullshit and say they’re going to get rid of it, but sometimes on the spot they do make changes. So there was another large software company I was working with and on the spot, the vice president had 800 people reporting to him. He changed his weekly meeting to every two weeks. And I was like, yeah, that’s actually — and you start doing the math with all the numbers — thousands of hours.

Darius Teter: Thousands of hours.

Robert Sutton: So to me, it starts with a mindset that, yes, good leaders, they see themselves as editors in chief.

Darius Teter: That is so smart. We did something not as dramatic as that, but — so Seed has a board, and of course we want to measure our impact, but what I always try to remind people is, surveys cost money. Measuring things costs money. So don’t ask a question you already know the answer to. Don’t ask a question if you’re not willing to act on what you learn. That’s just wasted effort. Right. So one of the things I was thinking about is: How do we force people to make hard choices? How do we introduce the right friction? So what we did with our board is we said, look, each of you get four dots. Here’s the 25 things we could measure in terms of impact. Pick four.

Robert Sutton: Constraints are a beautiful thing.

Darius Teter: Constraints are a beautiful thing. Just as an oblivious leader can often cause friction, they also hold the power to fix some bad friction with just a simple decision.

Robert Sutton: We saw with founders when we wrote our book on scaling, we’d see executives who, well, it made sense for them to interview everybody when there’s 20, 30, 40 people in the firm, but when there’s a thousand in —

Darius Teter: That was Google, right

Robert Sutton: Well, yeah, Google had some of those problems, too.

Darius Teter: So I forget, some executive came in and said, if you want more than four interviews, you have to write a letter to me and explain why. And they all went away.

Robert Sutton: So the story there — actually, Google’s a good example of that because in 2002, and I actually still have this transcript and tape, Jeff Pfeffer and I interviewed Larry Page in 2002. Google was maybe 500 people. He said, “Sergey and I, we’re not very popular in the computer science department because we’ll do two, four, six„ 10, 15 interviews before we hire someone, because we want somebody who’s technically excellent and who will grow into a leader.” And that made sense for building the company. And then Laszlo Bock wrote a book called Work Rules. He inherits, essentially head of HR, and he sees that people are doing as many as 25 interviews. And this is a case where people will think that power and top-down things are bad sometimes, but sometimes they are good for getting rid of friction if the person has the right intent. So all he did is: if you have more than four interviews to do, you have to write me and get permission.

Darius Teter: And who’s going to write a VP? It makes you think, it makes you think hard.

Robert Sutton: It makes you think. So a lot of times for friction fixing, just getting people to pause and think about the impact can have an effect. In that case, it’s just a little bit of a hassle, too.

Darius Teter: Fixing friction this way is easiest if those decisions are reversible and it’s treated more like an experiment.

Robert Sutton: There’s also, and we write about this in various ways, there’s this notion of being really aware when you’re changing stuff about what’s reversible and what isn’t. Jeff Bezos talks about this as one-way versus two-way doors. And when you make decisions that are irreversible — selling your company, buying a big company — maybe you should slow down and be careful. But there’s lots of decisions that are reversible and easy in that situation. Sweating over them and analyzing them and analyzing them maybe isn’t a great idea if they’re reversible. In the example that we use in the book, and I was at the meeting, long ago in the nineties, I spent a year and a half hanging out with one of my PhD students, Andy Hargadon at IDEO, the famous design firm, which at that point was just a little firm, which mostly did product design. And it grew from 60 to 150 people in Palo Alto and it was just unwieldy. It was just too much of a mess to run as one organization. So they broke it into three studios, and it was this beautiful reorganization. Three people stood up and gave pitches about why you should join my studio. And everybody got their first choice. This was the least oppressive reorganization I’ve ever seen. People still freaked out, it was the first reorganization. And the famous David Kelley, who, well, he still has a Groucho Marx-type mustache, he shaved it off and we were freaked out. We could hardly recognize him. We’d never seen him. And he said, this changes like my mustache. I can always grow it back. And he did grow back his mustache and they did change the structure over the years.

Darius Teter: That’s really interesting. That’s not to say that fixing friction is always easy or always in the hands of just one person.

Robert Sutton: And I worry a little bit about simple rules. I can tell the story about Laszlo Bock, and it sounds so simple, but a lot of times, speaking of friction, it’s really a lot of work to fix friction in a system. It’s a high-friction experience in many cases.

Darius Teter: But you had another principle here, which is that, and I think this comes to your IDEO story, organizations are malleable prototypes.

Robert Sutton: Malleable prototypes. Yes. And this is the notion that this is the best we can do right now. And instead of making it more and more friction-full in terms of bad friction, there are things we can do to make them better. So don’t just get discouraged and think there’s nothing we can do. And I do think that that philosophy does run through the book. And then the other part about friction fix and being a trustee, which I think is really important, especially in this world of impatience and lack of discipline, which many of us have, is to treat it. It’s like mowing the lawn. If you do this stuff, you’ve got to do it regularly. It’s like —

Darius Teter: It’s going to grow back.

Robert Sutton: I only wash my car about once a year. I don’t think it’s enough.

Darius Teter: Actually, I’m the same. I’m a third owner of my car. I don’t really care what it looks like. I just care that it keeps driving.

But if you can remove unwanted friction, there may be surprising things waiting for you, as I learned myself. So as I said, I had far-flung operation at Oxfam. I get hundreds of emails and I just couldn’t keep up. And I had something like 3,000 emails in my inbox. So I came up with this thing where once a quarter, I would just delete them all and I would send a note to my whole team and say, I’m deleting every email I haven’t read from the past three months. If there’s something I was supposed to do for you that I have not done, call me. Don’t send me an email. Call me. Or if you’re in the U.S. office, drop by my desk. Never got a single call. So I was, like, it was so liberating. I was like, none of this is really — I mean, if something’s important, somebody would’ve already called me anyway. And the crazy part about this story is, so I was doing one of these annual cleanings or quarterly where I was just deleting thousands of emails without looking at them. And there was one that caught my eye, and the subject line was, this is the last time I’m going to reach out to you about this opportunity. And I looked at the email and it didn’t say what opportunity it was, and there was no thread. So I just wrote back and said, what opportunity? And it turned out to be working at Stanford Seed.

So the one email out of 3,000, which had the least amount of information, which I answered, turned out to actually be here. Isn’t that weird?

Friction can be a helpful handbrake, or it can stop you dead in your tracks. The key is to use it intentionally and eliminate it when it’s not needed. If you’re a leader, be aware of your own influence. Remember, you are the trustee of everyone else’s time. Be aware of addition sickness. Approach problems with a subtraction mindset. There’s a wealth of subtraction games and rituals that you can use to underscore that. Sometimes the solution is less, not more. As an executive, you have a responsibility to reduce friction between teams. So ask yourself: Does your workplace have an explicit or implicit incentive structure that encourages unproductive competition between your staff? Fixing friction isn’t easy. You’ll have more success if you approach it together as a team, because not everyone in the so-called friction supply chain is actually part of the problem. They might desperately want to be part of the solution.

They might even be champions for change. If you want to learn more about friction, we’ll have a video of my full interview with Bob Sutton available soon on the Stanford Graduate School of Business YouTube page. And you can pre-order his book. It’s the ultimate guide to fixing friction in your organization, and we’ll have a link to it in our show notes. So Bob, thank you so much for sharing all of your incredible insights. The book is The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder. I’ve already read it. It’s a fabulous book, and I’m really excited for it. And you said you can order it now?

Robert Sutton: Sure. Go for it. Thank you.

Darius Teter: It was lovely to talk. I can’t recommend it enough. This was one of my favorites. Thank you. That concludes season three of our podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Next year, starting in January, we’ll be introducing season four, and we look forward to seeing you there. From all of us here at the podcast, have a happy and safe new year, and may your business thrive. This has been Grit & Growth from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m your host, Darius Teeter. If you like this episode, follow us and leave a review on your favorite podcast app. Erika Amoako-Agyei and VeAnne Virgin researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back soon with another episode.

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