Deloitte CFO Insights: Fostering Friction to Accelerate Performance

Friction can lead to better outcomes. And the right type of friction can transform individual contributions into something far larger than the sum of the parts.

That’s because a group of people with conflicting perspectives has the power to envision a set of possibilities differently than any of the individuals alone, potentially leading to creation of new knowledge that could not have arisen elsewhere.

Workgroups that go along to get along won’t get far in an environment that demands new approaches and rapid learning

Moreover, the right type of friction—defined as group members’ willingness and ability to challenge each other’s ideas and assumptions—can drive groups to re-examine assumptions, test constraints, and push boundaries. It can also force individual members to stretch their own thinking about the problem and how to approach it, in ways they would not likely get to on their own.

Creating that new knowledge, however, requires workgroup members to make full use of the group’s diversity and the external resources to which it is connected. In this issue of CFO Insights, we will discuss the practice of cultivating friction and the deliberate steps CFOs and other leaders should consider to foster it.

The cultivate friction practice: What it is

Cultivating productive friction is about benefiting from the potential for learning that comes from diversity. In a diverse workgroup, members are influenced by a range of past experiences, apply different implicit rules, and notice different pieces of information. That cognitive diversity can create tensions within a workgroup, which can have unexpected and positive results.

Yet our desire for harmony can be so strong that productive friction simply will not happen without taking deliberate actions.

Those actions happen both within the workgroup, and outside. Practically, this means that members are open to being tested and questioned by others and willing and able to see how one idea fits with another and builds on other’s ideas. It also means that the group itself is open to challenges from the outside.

Other characteristics of a workgroup that cultivates friction include:

  • Energy over harmony. Workgroups that go along to get along won’t get far in an environment that demands new approaches and rapid learning.
  • 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 even a list of assumptions on a whiteboard can be an invitation for challenges. Up the ante by putting the board in a public place and inviting outsiders to comment.
  • 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, fresh aspects of the problem and potential solutions can be exposed, stirring up additional friction.

Putting the practice into play

Just setting up the conditions for friction is a start, but the type of productive friction that can help a workgroup learn faster isn’t likely to occur on its own. Being open to friction and maintaining a high level of friction generally takes a deliberate and conscious effort. Here’s how:

Embrace complexity. Performance improvement isn’t straightforward, in part because we don’t always know how to assess performance.

Proxies such as focus, speed, and efficiency tend to favor stripping out complexity. But in a world of interconnected systems, the inputs, outputs, and conditions of each are constantly changing.

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