Friction gets a bad press. I don’t think it should.

Around a year ago, I wrote a short piece on Friction, and got some generous and thoughtful flak from a reader in the USA. A marine, he was steeped in the notion of friction as embodied in concepts of mission command, where friction is anything that slows down strategy execution. From his standpoint of course, he was right.

Friction as inefficient versus friction as signal.

A lesson for me. Be clear. What I was focused on was friction as a signal of resistance, of something not working. A constraint, as in a beautiful constraint where we turn the constraint to advantage. From “we can’t because” to “we can if”

The position we currently find ourselves in brought it to mind. As we struggle with the unknowns of Coronavirus, and even more with the unthinking fear it generates in people, we are faced with a tsunami of “we can’t because”.

Serious though the issue is, it’s a learning opportunity. The things we can’t do – fly, meet up, buy hand sanitiser – are all contraints with alternatives. The share price of Zoom, the video platform, has doubled in the last month. Not without reason. I now use zoom regularly, and am working to make it, rather than face to face, a default. Meet face to face and make it special, not routine.

For the next few months, we are going to be immersed in friction. Business very much not as usual. We should make the most of it, as individuals and businesses. because this is not a blip. It may be unexpected, but what it’s triggering is just a foretaste of what is to come with the reality of Brexit, the challenge as AI encroaches in all sorts of areas, and response to climate change makes the restrictions we are suddenly seeing on travel the norm.

The Airlines and Railways queuing up for bailouts are being given a foretaste. (and just why would we bail these businesses out? – dividends are not a divine right, and this is, in the end, a normal business risk. We don’t bail out homeowners whose houses flood.)

For individuals, it’s more nuanced. Evidence is already indicating that those who can, like working from home. They are more efficient, more engaged, and happier. The politics of the office reduce. Their networks support them. For the businesses, their hold over the employee reduces. When you’re working from home, who you’re working for sinks more into the background for those with in demand skills and doing great work.

So, how do we use this unexpected, if unwelcome opportunity that is Coronavirus?

  • Take note of the friction. Is it coming from how you’ve been used to working. If you changed that, would the friction reduce?
  • What might you do differently? Which established habits no longer serve you?
  • Where are the beginnings? As you improvise to cope, what new ideas and possibilities are emerging?

My Marine friend was right. Friction is a signal of inefficiency, but what is efficient is not always effective. Somewhere along the way, what is efficient can easily lock you into obsolete ways of working that are being replaced, into complacency and wilful blindness.

Friction is signal. Use it.

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