This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘How ‘shit-fixers’ make companies tick’

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Huggy Rao
The first thing from any manager or leader — and it doesn’t matter whether you manage a team, a department, a division or a company — you know, your mindset ought to be I’m a trustee of other people’s time. I do not want to piss it away. I do not want to waste it.

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It from the Financial Times. I’m Isabel Berwick. Wouldn’t work be better if we could all just do all the tasks required of us without any delays, without waiting for that email sign-off, without all that bureaucracy? Removing unwanted friction could make our working lives so much easier. So how can we best go about it? The voice you heard at the top of the show was Huggy Rao. He’s a professor at Stanford University and the co-author of a new book called The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder. I rang him up in California and kicked off by asking what got Huggy and his co-author, Bob Sutton, interested in the idea of friction?

Huggy Rao
Bob and I wrote a book called Scaling Up Excellence, and it was a book about how can companies get big and simultaneously better. And when we shared the message of the book, we found that the top and senior echelons of an enterprise, they really were drawn to the message. But as we went to middle and lower-level managers, they liked the message but they often expressed a lament: it is incredibly hard to get anything done. And that was kind of what drew us into friction land. We went in with the presumption that friction consisted of obstacles that infuriate, enrage, and overwhelm people. But soon enough, we discovered that there were obstacles that were also helpful. They slowed people down. They educated people. They fostered better deliberation. And that’s kind of when we realised that a core leadership task was to really understand obstacles and to figure out how to take out the obstacles that infuriate people and include obstacles that slow down people.

Isabel Berwick
Is friction the same as bureaucracy or is it more complicated than that?

Huggy Rao
The real problem is not bureaucracy as much as what we refer to, Isabel, as “addition sickness” in organisations. Addition sickness stems from a bias all of us have as human beings. We tend to add often and to subtract less. And the difficulty is when you combine our addition bias with time poverty, the net result is people have an enormous mental burden to actually sustain. And the problem with these cognitive burdens is they erode willpower, they weaken generosity significantly.

Isabel Berwick
If we bring it back to corporates, I think Bob Sutton has said that even companies that were excellent historically at management, like Google or Facebook, are finding it harder to get things done. Do companies have an addiction problem as they get larger? Is that inevitable?

Huggy Rao
Absolutely. Addiction is what is rewarded. Subtraction is not viewed as, you know, particularly valuable, and so you have a tragedy of the commons. Companies, even when they subtract tasks, they kind of think it’s one and done. Oh, we took out a few things and that’s it. But the problem is subtraction should be as regular as mowing the lawn. Just the other day, I was teaching executives who are high-potential leaders for a very prominent large organisation in the world. I look at them and I say, hey, if you wanna get anything done in your company, what’s a good metric of how hard it is? How would you quantify that? And immediately people raised their hands and said, in our company, I have to talk to at least 100 people before I can get anything done. I mean, can you imagine that?

Isabel Berwick
Can we generalise about what tends to be the biggest source of friction in companies or which departments or who?

Huggy Rao
It’s sort of more . . . There is sort of a culture of indifference to the problem of bad friction that is the problem, the way at least we see it. You can’t say marketing does it more, or HR does it more or whatever, or finance does it more. Each one does their own kind of thing. The real problem in the end is the casualties are either customers or alternatively, employees, and often a combination of both.

Isabel Berwick
So how does bad friction manifest itself?

Huggy Rao
The moment you have bad friction, you certainly see it in delays. You certainly see it in, you know, fewer launches of new products or delayed launches of new products. You see it of course in companies lagging behind competitors and the like. And most of all, you actually see that in customers who usually get infuriated by the friction that company bad friction that companies impose on them. And of course, all of this shows up later in the bottom line.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah. And when we talk about good friction. Could you expand on that a bit? So when it stops people from doing things, what is it stopping them from doing reckless things or . . .?

Huggy Rao
Good friction, what it does is it arrests overconfidence and myopia. Let me give you an example. There’s a venture capital company here called Andreessen Horowitz. They have a five-person investment management committee. They look at hundreds of pitches, possibly even more, and then they probably invest in maybe 10 to 15 start-ups. The way they introduce friction in the functioning of the investment committee is, the norm is if all five people agree, they’re not going to invest in the start-up because their reasoning is, wow, if everybody agrees, it must either be a very obvious idea somebody has done that we don’t know about or is working on it that we don’t know about, or we haven’t done due diligence. So they require disagreement in the investment committee. So only when the work vote is 4-1 or 3-2 they invest and their reasoning is hey, start-ups come up with innovative and disruptive ideas and by definition, they’re controversial. And they ought to be reflected in the voting pattern of the investment management committee.

Isabel Berwick
So I read in your book that it was almost called The Shit-Fixers.

Huggy Rao
Oh my God.

Isabel Berwick
Which I like very much. But can you talk about what makes a good “shit-fixer” internally? You know, people listening to this might be managers. You know, how can we make ourselves more valuable by becoming the shit-fixer in the office?

Huggy Rao
So we call these executives friction-fixers, Isabel. (Isabel laughs) That is really what executives ought to be. The first thing from any manager or leader — and it doesn’t matter whether you manage a team, a department, a division or a company — you know, your mindset ought to be I’m a trustee of other people’s time. I do not want to piss it away. I do not want to waste it.

The second thing is to really approach the entire organisation and think of it as a product itself. The procedures, the routines, the structures of organisations — they’re also products; employees use them. And so you have to really think of everything as a product.

And both those two things actually play a big role in the mindset of a friction-fixer. They really are interested in understanding what is going on and they’re interested in helping people. And we repeatedly found managers and, you know, leaders and executives telling us, look, you know, friction-fixing is part therapy, part organisation design.

Isabel Berwick
Is there a perfect balance that you can achieve in terms of the ideal amount of friction? And do you know when you’ve got there? Is it a state of perfect equilibrium?

Huggy Rao
I wish I could say it’s a state of perfect equilibrium or, you know, it’s a nice midpoint on a curve. But often in organisations, this actually unfolds as a continuing conversation and a debate. And one of the things that leaders need to do is where should you introduce good friction? We call this friction forensics in our book, and we kind of identify a bunch of considerations that suggest that you ought to think of introducing friction. For example, if you’re making a decision that’s very costly to reverse — so one-way door decision, like acquiring a company, launching a new product, making a reorganisation, or like whatever it is — you need to put in good friction to slow things down, to educate people.

When you’re making decisions where the cost of a mistake is pretty low or when the work is routine, you know, or when the work is simple, you really need to take out a lot of obstacles that infuriate people because you wanna make things easy for people to do. So the other thing that senior executives do, according to one study, is they often don’t know how work gets done three levels beneath them. And as a result, they underestimate co-ordination difficulty. They think everything is easy. So they lead with the “ask” muscle: please do more. Instead, we really need to mow the lawn first and give people the gift of time.

Isabel Berwick
If you had one lasting piece of advice about friction you’d like managers to take away, what would it be?

Huggy Rao
Be an elephant and not a hippopotamus. A hippopotamus is . . . When you look at a hippo’s face, the biggest portion is the mouth, the smallest portions are the eyes and the ears. Leaders who are hippopotamuses constantly speak a lot. They make statements and ask very few helpful questions. They think they are the only lighthouse in town. By contrast, leaders who are elephants have huge ears, a huge trunk relative to mouth size, big eyes and a formidable memory. They listen, observe and most importantly, ask helpful questions. So I suggest that the challenge for leaders is to recruit the elephant in them and subjugate the hippo in themselves.

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Isabel Berwick
Those ideas on good and bad friction are such a useful way of thinking about the processes that guide our work. We’ve all been frustrated by unnecessary friction in our working lives, but some obstacles serve a purpose. They’re designed to make us stop and think and they exist for good reason.

I was still curious about friction so I sat down with my colleague, FT senior business writer Andrew Hill. He also recently interviewed Huggy alongside his co-author, Bob Sutton. I started by asking Andrew how he understood the concept of friction at work and whether he could think of any real-life examples of the damage it can do.

Andrew Hill
Well, I think they are talking in part about what other people call bureaucracy. Bob and Huggy are strong believers, as I am, that there is some need for some structure in companies. I mean, the example from a few years ago that always struck me was Uber, which expanded super fast. The whole company was built on the idea of reducing the obstacles to running their service but in the process, didn’t put in place a decent HR structure, which is often seen by start-ups as being the first sign of encroaching bureaucracy, and as a result, fell over its own feet and ended up with a number of scandals by not having enough structure. So I think, as Huggy mentions, there is this balance between good and bad friction. And lots of companies think bureaucracy is bad as they grow, but they need to have something on which to grow, and that is often a structure that might be termed bureaucracy.

Isabel Berwick
So what I’m really interested in is the role of, potential role of AI in bureaucracy/friction. How is that going to play out? Or have we seen already that AI sort of capture some of the existing friction and dispels it? I mean, how does it work, Andrew?

Andrew Hill
Well, I think generative AI in particular could have a positive effect in speeding up some things that are currently taking a lot of time. And as Huggy mentions and as they mentioned in their book, often it’s the sort of trivial tasks that take up a lot of time that it’s worth accelerating. But I fear that there is a sort of counterproblem here, which is that AI could just swamp us in the kind of emails and process . . . accelerating the process because there’ll be a lot of automated generation of notices and rules and so on that could proliferate. And I think of it as an accelerant. And Huggy and Bob talk about addition sickness. I think it could be an accelerant of addition sickness, because it could just add to the number of things that are coming our way, perhaps from some people who think they’re applying it to reduce their own friction.

Isabel Berwick
But then it ends up loading up other people.

Andrew Hill
Yes. By sending, for example, more emails out or to send processed stuff out to others. So it’s a classic case probably of where it needs to be carefully observed just how much friction it’s taking away and what the net effect is of what it might be adding to other people’s inboxes.

Isabel Berwick
Andrew, thank you so much. That’s given me a lot to think about.

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Andrew Hill
Pleasure to be here.

Isabel Berwick
We hear a lot about how AI will reduce workplace friction, but Andrew’s right to point out that it might also enable the people we interact with to deluge us with even more stuff. In the end, it’s down to leaders to reduce bad friction and decide which roadblocks are needed for an organisation to function. Good leaders, as Huggy says, are stewards of their employees’ time, reducing bureaucracy when it’s appropriate and building in pauses when that’s in the company’s best interests. Those skills will be crucial regardless of the way AI develops.

Thanks to Huggy Rao and Andrew Hill. This episode of Working It was produced by Mischa Frankl-Duval and mixed by Simon Panayi. The executive producer is Manuela Saragosa and Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. Thanks for listening.

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