Cultivate friction - get comfortable with being uncomfortable to secure diversity of thought

Deloitte Center for the Edge

All kinds of diversity introduces a powerful potential for learning. But this learning will not occur on its own, as we have a natural tendency seek out harmony, adjust to each other and smooth over differences. Instead, we need to cultivate friction and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Cultivating productive friction is about benefiting from the potential for learning that comes from diversity — all kinds of diversity. In a diverse workgroup, members are influenced by a range of past experiences, apply different implicit rules, and notice different pieces of information.

Cognitive diversity can create tensions within a workgroup, and those tensions can have unexpected and positive results. Yet our desire for harmony can be so strong — to some extent, we are biologically wired to mirror the behavior of those around us — and often is so ingrained in organizations that productive friction simply will not happen without taking deliberate action to stoke it.

Friction must be cultivated first within the workgroup, day-to-day, but also outside the workgroup, between the workgroup and others who might have relevant insight, knowledge, or resources.

Team members must be open to being challenged. It also requires them to connect ideas and have them build on each other. The group must also be open to challenges from the outside. The workgroup should be inviting others to “question us”. They should also be open to introducing diverse external resources.

A workgroup that cultivates friction might be characterized by:

  • Energy over harmony
    Workgroups that go along to get along won’t get far in an environment that demands new approaches and rapid learning. The right type of friction can be exhilarating.
  • Challenge and discussion over approval
    In fact, if the workgroup’s output is similar to one of the inputs, there may be too little friction
  • .Transparent thinking
    Sketching a potential solution or a framework for approaching a problem or even a list of assumptions on a whiteboard can be an invitation for challenges from within the group. Up the ante by putting the board in a public place and inviting outsiders to the conversation.
  • Thinking made tangible
    Just writing something on a board can reveal assumptions and relationships that aren’t apparent in a discussion. As an idea becomes progressively more tangible — for example, moving from spoken idea to written description to drawn pictures to models and prototypes — fresh aspects of the problem and potential solutions can be exposed, stirring up additional friction.


Embrace complexity

Workgroups need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It begins with embracing complexity when our instinct is to simplify. Leaning into complexity, with all of its messiness and unpredictability, can help highlight a problem’s nuances and the contrasts and contradictions within the workgroup.

The risk that comes with embracing complexity is concluding with ‘everything is connected’. Indeed, problems have a problem has many facets and group members have different ideas. As the discussions evolves into the fascinating realms of philosophy, psychology and systems dynamics, it can also become unpractical.

The challenge is to draw out the essential next steps without reducing the complexity that characterizes the real world. Having shined a light on complexity, the team must seek out the right challenges and draw out the group’s areas of disagreement and divergence.


Celebrate diversity

Be explicit that cognitive diversity is not just a nice-to-have. It is exactly what the workgroup needs. Be open about the fact that group members have different backgrounds and skills; this may open the door for members to reveal more of their differences. When workgroups rush to smooth over differences, they can miss the opportunity to sample ideas and techniques and pick up new tools and approaches.

Set the tone by provoking members to speak to their belief systems, their reasons for participating, and why the outcome matters to them — even if, or especially if, these reasons differ. Resist the urge to resolve contradictions or emphasize commonality. Establishing a tolerance for unresolved tension can ease individuals’ fears that disagreement will damage the team dynamic.

Although action-oriented group members may become impatient or frustrated when passionate views collide and generate multiple interpretations of a challenge, these collisions and interactions could be necessary to continue to reach new levels of performance.

Although nearly all companies put ‘learning’ high on their agenda, the approach to learning is often through learning programs, trainings and online courses. We believe there is a huge untapped potential for real learning – on the job, and in the team.

This kind of learning is tough. It is challenging. However, it can produce amazing results. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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