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Of course, you don’t want workgroup members bickering and resentful. But productive friction is key to combating groupthink and complacency, forcing a group to reexamine what it is doing and whether there is another way to have more impact. Friction can take a good idea and turn it into a better one.
Friction may generate plenty of uncomfortable moments—but it’s essential. Friction fights against groupthink and complacency; it can force a workgroup to reexamine what it is doing and whether there is another way to have more impact. It can take a good idea and turn it into an even better idea; it can transform two better ideas into a great approach or slow down a misguided assumption before it gains momentum. The right types of friction—for our purposes, defined as people’s willingness and ability to challenge each other in the interest of coming up with better approaches—can transform a workgroup into something larger than the sum of its members. Questioning assumptions and approaches can uncover new opportunities and better ways to address issues or meet customer needs and lead to better outcomes.
This type of productive friction is often absent in workgroups. Few organizations encourage friction—indeed, many leaders work to minimize it in any form. Yet as groups face issues that are more complex, unexpected, and demand fresh solutions, they will need a broader range of approaches to problem-solving and analysis. Productive friction around how to approach a problem is an important element of generating new knowledge embodied in action, perhaps the most powerful type of learning for improving performance.
Maximizing the potential for productive friction across every activity and phase of work can help workgroups to keep pushing the boundaries to accelerate performance improvement. The key is to heighten the conditions that lead to more productive friction.
Practically speaking, ideas don’t clash and transform into better approaches on their own. The friction comes from people. One member brings an idea or an approach or a technique to the table, and another member disagrees or suggests alternatives or brings a different interpretation of the problem. Each challenge, if made in good faith and respectfully, can lead the group into a deeper exploration of the problem and potential approaches. This is friction—productive friction. In the end, the output could look quite different from anything that was originally brought to the table.
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Additional friction can result when the group takes action against real requirements and complications in a particular context. When we consider the results, we challenge each other’s interpretations and evolve our understanding of the implications. From this friction, we create a next approach. Maximizing the potential for friction means ensuring that a workgroup has the right people in the group, and the right connections outside the group, to disagree with and diverge from each other and the status quo.1
The potential for accelerated performance comes from the powerful intersection of diversity of mind and the passion of the explorer in the workgroup’s composition:
Where does the useful friction come from? A group of like-minded people doing what they’ve always done is unlikely to naturally generate the type of friction that leads to better and better outcomes. Instead, the workgroup may have to be deliberate about setting up the conditions for friction to occur.
The group itself can be a primary source of friction: Who are the members? What do they believe? What do they bring to the table? What do they care about? How will their way of viewing and interacting with the world challenge others in the group? Secondarily, the workgroup can increase the potential for friction by reaching beyond the group, even beyond the organization—for resources, inputs, challenges, and guidance on gnarly questions—and to connect to a broader network of others who are also on a quest to increase impact. Finally, the workgroup can adopt practices to structure in episodes of friction: periodically changing the routine, context, roles, or membership.
Research suggests that groups that are more diverse are likely to be more creative and productive than groups that share equal ability but are less diverse. UK researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis found that cognitive diversity, defined as “differences in perspective or information processing styles,” accounted for the variance in the performance of over 100 groups of executives on a strategic execution exercise focused on managing new, uncertain, and complex situations.4 University of Michigan professor Scott Page further notes that “random collections of intelligent problem-solvers can outperform collections of the best individual problem-solvers,” provided the problem at hand is one that will benefit from diverse interpretations, heuristics, and perspectives.5 As the world moves faster and more routine work is automated, more of the work of the frontline workgroup likely will be exactly the complex problems that do benefit from this type of diversity.
Humans have a uniquely unlimited potential to address new contexts and push boundaries. However, a group that shares similar ways of thinking about problems and analysis may have trouble generating alternatives when they get stuck. New, uncertain, and complex situations may require framing problems differently, using different approaches (for example, experimenting versus analyzing), or bringing different interpretations.6 These differences nudge members to pay attention to different things, leading to fresh understandings of the opportunity and potential resources to address it. While members’ experience and skills are key to a group’s ability to execute, its capacity to improve depends on its range of approaches to problem-solving and its ability to learn from and use that experience and those skills. In fact, research has shown that without making an effort to make use of members’ diversity for better understanding, decision-making, and problem-solving, groups often perform less well than do individuals.7
The diversity that can lead to productive friction goes well beyond identity markers. However, just as with identity, workgroups will tend toward cognitive homogeneity unless they intentionally diversify diversity. In many organizations, hiring and staffing tends to favor like-mindedness, standardized requirements for education and experience, and cultural “fit.” Expediency, meanwhile, focuses groups on the resources that are most easily accessible, staffing workgroups from within their own unit, geography, or enterprise. And people’s tendency, particularly under pressure, is to choose those with whom we anticipate the least friction, resulting in “functional biases.” Workgroups can counter this by deliberately seeking diverse backgrounds and experiences that will make cognitive diversity more likely and paying attention to the group’s interactions to see if further diversity is needed.
Consider the example of the briefing workgroup at sparks & honey, an advertising agency focused on mapping culture and one of several groups we saw trying to engage diversity in more effective ways. Although members have a range of backgrounds—languages spoken, age cohorts, countries of origin, ethnicities, gender expressions, as well as functional expertise (data science, strategic consulting, brand planning, journalism, anthropology, and social sciences)—these traits don’t indicate whether the group has cognitive diversity, and it can fall into some common biases: residing in New York, being “creative,” having chosen this type of work. In order to increase the potential for engaging with more diversity of mind, and to overcome biases that arise from social class, personality/temperament, working style, and mind-set, the briefings are open to guests, and the agency cultivates external participation through an advisory board, scouts, and immersive ethnographic studies. The agency’s intelligence system also balances these biases with automation: active machine learning that surveys, gathers, and feeds intelligence into the system from the broad (mainstream) to the narrow (fringe).8
Bringing in more cognitive diversity is one thing, but the potential friction can be amped up by bringing group members into closer contact and deepening the level of engagement with each other. Instead of soliciting divergent feedback via email or some other static exchange, a more useful, generative interaction might result from surfacing the divergent perspectives in the workgroup setting, with disagreeing members potentially venturing out into the relevant context together to test an idea or approach. For example, when the Army’s Joint Strategic Operating Command was seeking a better way to fight an unorthodox enemy in Iraq, it coupled intelligence analysts with Navy SEALs and Delta Force operatives to go “shoulder to shoulder” out on raids as well as into analysis.
Workgroups can further broaden the range of perspectives by looking outside the group, whether to specifically solicit additional perspectives, to test and debrief a new approach, or even to partner in delivering a solution. Casting a wider net, beyond your own networks, may be particularly important for complex or thorny issues. Workgroup members can exploit what sociologist Mark Granovetter calls “weak ties,” looking beyond their small circle of deep relationships—where people often share similar values, interests, and experiences—to their looser network, where connections, insights, and unexpected resources might be more far-reaching and diverse.9
For many workgroups, the nature of the issues and exceptions will dictate that the actual membership changes over time or episodically. Diverse groups can be rapidly staffed from larger pools. In fact, as frontline workgroups take on more important, value-creating work, companies may scrap much of their organizational chart, instead organizing as pools of workers assigned to flexible workgroups that stretch across boundaries. If groups are diverse and passionate, the pools would also become more diverse over time as members rotate back. However, leaders would still have to be deliberate in assembling cognitively diverse workgroups. For example, at the Red Cross, responders are often pulled from an external, formal pool of local resources who are likely less similar in background to each other or the professional staff. Members of this local pool share certain basic training, but each brings a unique perspective and set of tools and resources to the specific problem. For instance, each local resource might have a unique take on how and where to procure supplies, how to navigate back roads to get from one site to another, or what the most powerful coalitions of local service group leaders might be.10
Asking for volunteers attracts people who are motivated to make a difference and who can attract others like them. As Gillian Tett notes in The Silo Effect, “People who are willing to take risks and jump out of their narrow specialist world are often able to remake boundaries in interesting ways.”11 Since even the most passionate people need something to be drawn to, workgroups should make themselves known and discoverable, whether formally, creating blogs or websites that state the group’s purpose and goals, or informally, through word of mouth. In either case, try to find powerful ways to pull. For example, Team Solo-Mid, a group that plays the multiplayer online battle game League of Legends competitively, posted a recruiting message on a well-known League community website: “Our goal is to improve and to constantly develop strategies. The purpose of this clan is to constantly increase the skill level of the upper-level play.” Tap into the passion of potential members with a succinct description of the issue that also speaks to the outcome and the way the group will get there—the practices and opportunities to accelerate individual learning. A small set of willing members can build momentum, making membership in such a group more attractive to others.
Even if the group has to start small, letting people vote with their feet—opting in or self-nominating rather than being “volun-told”—attracts those who are passionate about a particular challenge and want to be involved.12 Choice about where to focus people’s efforts can fuel dedication, accountability, and excitement. At Google Analytics 360, for example, people can self-nominate to be part of the response group that forms whenever a competitor launches a product. They can also self-nominate into more sustained workgroups, choosing to participate on the issues about which they feel most strongly or where they are excited by the type of challenge or the customers with whom they’d work.
Not everyone who volunteers will be right for a particular workgroup. You want people who care deeply about achieving the outcome—but also people without a lot of preconceived notions about how that outcome could or could not happen. Experience can be valuable, certain skills might be necessary, but overreliance on expertise can be limiting, to both the individual and the group. Expertise can tend to work against openness to learning and new ideas. Workgroup members need to be willing to challenge others, to be challenged, and to be open to learning from those challenges.
Consider what can happen with an issue that is perceived as high-visibility, one that might have leaders calling for the “cream of the crop.” Having all risen to the top of the same organization, these individuals will likely have broadly similar conceptual tool kits, problem-solving approaches, and mind-sets. This can become more pronounced in narrower or more specialized fields and lead specialists to approach a solution in a similar way and converge in their findings.13 Deliberately busting silos—pulling skills and expertise from across organizational and functional barriers, to build an all-star group rather than a group of “all stars”—can help to counter the cognitive homogeneity problem. This can be an exercise in releasing control and trusting the workgroup to do what they’ve been assembled to do, which is not to just execute the status quo. It is yet another acknowledgment that the organization can’t predict the future or the shape of the solution that will emerge.
Character also matters. Diversity in core values is generally unproductive no matter how strong a person’s skills, and the skills and tasks required may change. Values persist. The values might be broad: Behave ethically; don’t do anything illegal. Or they might be specific to a workgroup and context. Consider this example from a Deloitte leader who credits some of her success in growing account revenue over the past decade to looking at character before competence in staffing. She has created a list of guidelines for behavior and attitude (see figure 1 that addresses character.) The list is both a filter and a way of setting expectations at the outset to increase the likelihood that all members are suited to creating value in that environment.
So if not skills and performance ratings and other résumé criteria, and not the friction-killing cultural “fit,” what criteria might guide whether to accept a potential group member?
Passion and a growth mind-set.14 Without these, a workgroup is unlikely to constantly push boundaries in pursuit of learning how to make a greater impact.
Aside from certain nonnegotiable competencies, favor passion over skill. People who have passion—what we’ve defined as passion of the explorer15—seem driven to learn how to have more of an impact, faster, on a particular domain. To that end, they tend to embrace challenges and connect with others around those challenges and typically find the unexpected and difficult more motivating than fatiguing. They continuously pursue new approaches and better solutions and will persevere and look for learning in nearly every situation. In a group of passionate members, the desire to make an impact can overcome organizational tensions and barriers. For those with passion, a workgroup can be an attractive opportunity to connect with others and learn faster on significant challenges. At Southwest, for example, the selective Field Tech group looks for “folks who are frustrated because they could perform their job so much better if only they had this tool or that tool.” One perk of the job is being empowered to create or obtain whatever tools people need to do their job better. The group looks for members who have technical aptitude and a good work ethic but also “love trying to fix something that can’t be fixed by anyone else.”16
One challenge is that this type of passion is scarce, characterizing only around 13 percent of the workforce, although 52 percent of workers surveyed have at least one attribute of this type of passion on which to build. For those who haven’t fully realized their passion within the confines of a job description, participation in a workgroup may help cultivate the questing, connecting, or commitment characteristic of the passion of the explorer. Through deliberately breaking silos, workgroups can have the added benefit of connecting the passionate with other passionate people from across the organization.
Connecting and working with others who are passionate can be a powerful motivator.17 For example, at Facebook, voluntary hackathons showed that many people would take time outside of their day job to come together purely because they were interested in a specific problem and wanted to be a part of creating a solution. (For example, a manager of the site’s News Feed created a Facebook feature specifically for in-laws because she was close to her husband’s mother and had no way to classify their relationship on the site.) This in turn can create more demand for the opportunity and attract others who may not have understood the impact previously.
Over time, informal practices may harden into formal processes, expectations may become codified, and perspectives and beliefs may converge. This may be comfortable but is not good for friction. What wins in one context may lose in another. Change it up with new people, ideas, and conditions that are surprising rather than predictable. Look for people who tend to play with, rather than within, the boundaries. Try to nudge people out of their comfort zones. Even changing the work environment—meeting in person if the group is remote or working off-site if it’s normally in the office—can refresh the dynamic. Structure in ways to avoid the trap of tried and true by making it a rule to change the rules. At sparks & honey, the briefing group’s goal, every day, is to run the most productive and insightful one-hour meeting possible. They have honed the format to a specific pace, hitting benchmarks of discussion and analysis throughout the hour. When something works, members stick with it—except for on Fridays, when they try some new structure or technique, keeping the group off-balance and interested and discovering useful new techniques to incorporate along the way.
Individuals can be stretched and motivated and the group dynamics shaken up by making roles context-dependent. Switching up the structure and roles will likely make some members uncomfortable and may cause frustration because it works against the drive for efficiency into which we tend to fall. Being in different roles and relationships could challenge the expectations of a group and create potential friction for individuals and the group collectively. For example, the Red Cross has a practice called blue sky/gray sky that allows for members to adopt entirely different roles from their normal day-to-day in a disaster response. Depending on the context and their own skills, someone might be the incident commander in one response but be boots on the ground loading water for the next one. The explicit move to gray sky seems to eliminate the friction that can come from hierarchies and refocuses everyone on achieving the shared outcome.