How to Become a Friction Fixer with Bob Sutton

Bob Sutton on the CultureLab podcast

Can you remember a time when unnecessary friction made things at work unjustifiably and annoyingly hard? Maybe you had to read a 1000-word email that could have been just one paragraph or had to attend a two-hour meeting that could have been an email. Or maybe you had to manually input data, although the process should have been automated ages ago. Millions of hours get lost every day to red tape and workarounds that shouldn’t have to exist in the first place, while misguided leaders keep piling on complexity that only makes things worse. The result is a workplace clogged with time-consuming and soul-crushing practices that drive us crazy and undermine our ability to achieve meaningful goals.

My guest today, Professor Bob Sutton, has been so fascinated by the friction we experience in our organizations that he researched it for a decade. His work resulted in a book co-authored with Huggy Rao, The Friction Project.

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist and Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies leadership, innovation, organizational change, and workplace dynamics. His main focus over the past decade has been on scaling and leading at scale—how to grow organizations and spread good things (and remove bad things) in teams and organizations.

In this conversation, Bob Sutton and I talk about how to identify good and bad friction in an organization and how to make the right things easier and the wrong things harder.

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Episode transcript

Aga Bajer 00:00

Welcome to the CultureLab. I’m your host, Aga Bajer. This podcast helps you turn your company culture into rocket fuel for meaningful growth. It gives you the tools and inspiration to make work, synonymous with fun, meaning, and belonging. This is where we explore how to cultivate remarkable cultures. Cultures that scale and evolve as our businesses grow, and the world keeps on changing.

Bob Sutton 00:32

So in 2002, my co-author on earlier books, Jeff Pfeffer, and I, we met with a young Larry Page; okay, there were probably 500 people working for Google, he, I don’t even think he was a billionaire yet. And he said that a lot of his friends at Stanford were complaining because he interviewed them so many times, 10, 15, 20 times, before he’d give them a job offer or not so it was driving people crazy. But he said ‘I’ve got to do this to build the right culture’. And that was probably right in the early days. But then there’s a guy named Laszlo Bock, who was essentially head of HR for about eight years, wrote a book called Work Rules! So Laszlo gets there. And now they have a tradition that people are interviewing 6,8,12. And he said 20, for as many as 25 times and still not getting a job offer. So he did this simple rule, which was if you want to do more than four job interviews, you have to write me and I have to give you explicit permission.

Aga Bajer 01:30

Hello, friends, and welcome to episode 132 of the CultureLab podcast. This episode is brought to you by CultureBrained, a one-of-a-kind accelerator program, where cultural leaders get hands-on support and guidance on how to reach their goals faster – especially now, in this brave new world of remote and hybrid work. CultureBrained connects you with outstanding peers on the same journey, but also with world-class experts, including people you know from the show. And they will help you identify and implement new, better ways of creating a culture where people do their best work. Check it out, it’s tinyurl.com/CultureBrained. And no need to write it down – there’s a link in the show notes.

Aga Bajer 02:25

So, can you remember a time when it felt like things at work were way harder than they should be? Maybe you were asked to read a 1000-word email that could have been just a short paragraph or had to attend a two-hour meeting that could have been an email. Or maybe someone asked you to create a report that no one read afterward. The reality is that every workplace is clogged with this type of destructive friction. Convoluted, time-consuming and soul-crushing practices that drive us crazy and undermine our ability to achieve meaningful goals. I imagine that globally, millions of hours must get lost every day to mazes of red tape, and efficiency tools that become anything but, clueless leaders who pile on needless complexity. Now, my guest today, Professor Bob Sutton, was so fascinated by friction that we experience in organizations that he researched it for decades. His work resulted in a book he co-authored with Huggy Rao. It’s called The Friction Project. Robert Sutton is an organizational psychologist and Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies leadership, innovation, organizational change and workplace dynamics. His main focus over the past decade is on scaling and leading at scale, how to grow organizations, how to spread good things, and how to remove bad things, and how to make work better. In this conversation, Bob Sutton and I talk about how to identify good and bad friction in organizations. And how can we change our mindset, so that we can make the right things easier and the wrong things harder? We talk about addition bias and why we as humans default to what can I add here, instead of what can I get rid of? We talked about how good friction can help jumpstart human connection and innovation in the workplace. And also how to think like a friction fixer regardless of your position. And finally, we talk about how to apply the good friction. To do it so that we can slow things down for better decision making. And there is much more. Enjoy.

Bob Sutton 04:48

My name is Bob Sutton. I’m an organizational psychologist from Stanford.

Aga Bajer 04:52

Bob, welcome to the CultureLab.

Bob Sutton 04:54

Oh, it’s great to be here.

Aga Bajer 04:55

I’m so excited about this conversation. I’m excited for me but also super excited for our audience, because I know that people who listen to the show are incredibly interested in the stuff that you cover in your new book.

Bob Sutton 05:11

Great.

Aga Bajer 05:11

First, before we go there, there’s this one question that I asked to all of my guests. It’s a show about culture. And so, my question is about the very early cultural influences that shaped you as a person. How did you grow up, and what imprint has it left on you?

Bob Sutton 05:30

Nobody ever asks that. I would say two things before I was 20. The first one was that my late father was an entrepreneur. And he was a contractor for the US government. And he constantly felt oppressed by bureaucracy. So that was one influence. I mean, every night it was, he just came home and complained. And I worked for him some too. So I saw some of the friction there. But then on the other side, my main job from the time I was 16 to 20, is I worked in a pizza parlor. And I started as the delivery boy. And I worked my way up to night manager, I started at $1.25 An hour US and ended at $2.50. I actually made more money, delivering pizzas, because of tips, as I went through the process of eventually sort of managing five people, and dealing with all the pressures and everything. And that was more of an entrepreneurial adventure. So I saw big government and entrepreneurship sort of all together before I was 20. And so those were really big influences on me, because in the first one, I’d hear my father complain about how messed up things were, and the second one, it was kind of my job to make the thing work. And when we failed, during the rush, or a pizza got ruined, it was usually my fault, because I made a mistake or trained somebody badly. One situation, there’s no control. The other one, where I had a lot of control. As a footnote, I’ve been a Stanford faculty member for 40 years. But I always say my first job, it was actually just about half a mile from Stanford University. Most pizzas were delivered to Stanford. So, I’ve worked in the same piece of land since I’ve been 16 years old. At 69, I’m still lost all the time. So I say I’ve spent my adult life lost on the Stanford campus.

Aga Bajer 07:20

There are so many similarities, both in our early career path because I actually one of my first jobs was being a waitress, and I worked in the kitchen as well, in a pizza chain called Deep Pan in London, so I can definitely relate to that and how much you can learn from that. I always get lost in my own neighborhoods as well. So here we go. Another similarity. Plus, my parents, it’s interesting, you know, because I never thought about it this way. But now that I think about the conversations in my family, and what my parents complained about, it actually is linked to what I’m doing today. So it’s fascinating, right? That it’s not only those positive influences, but sometimes the frictions, the frustrations, they, they lead us on a path. Makes a lot of sense to me. So Bob, I know that in 2014, you co-authored a book, Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. And in that book, you are exploring challenges of leading at scale. And now with your latest book that is due to come out The Friction Project, you delve deeper into how smart leaders make the right things easier, and the wrong things harder. So, first thing that I want to ask you about the new book and the project. What was the inspiration behind this intriguing title, but also intriguing focus of friction?

Bob Sutton 08:46

To me, there’s two inspirations. One is besides my cultural background, which we’re discussing. The first inspiration, so we finished Scaling Up Excellence. And the good news is there’s all these companies, because it’s Silicon Valley, most of them die. But then there’s a few that just grow like crazy, including Google, now, Alphabet, Facebook, now Meta, they changed their names. And then there’s some that grow more bumpily, like Twitter, and also Uber, some of the cases that we’ve looked at, we know the insiders, so I consulted to Facebook, when they had about 200 employees. And I had a 24 year old head of HR named Chris Cox, who was my client. He was like a baby with a loaded gun. He’s now head of product. He actually the most lovely human being, regardless of what you may think about Facebook, which some of the stuff is a problem. Everybody I know has ever known him says, like, for example, I can’t stand Mark Zuckerberg because he’s kind of rude. But Chris is the most gentle, wonderful human being you’’ve ever met in your life. And he’s probably a billionaire right now. So anyway, so we’d see these organizations that started out fast and nimble. It would get harder and harder and harder to do simple things. And then, since I said, I’ve been at Stanford 40 years, the same thing is happening in my employer. That simple things, like just getting reimbursed for expenses is so difficult. I don’t even bother to hand in my dinner receipts half the time. Because do I want to have 18 emails and 14 rejections or whatever, between sort of the personal and the intellectual, we realized that things were getting hard to get done as organizations got older, got more complex, and in some ways to sort of stop. When I think about what Huggy and I’ve been doing the last 15 years. It’s a whole bunch of things associated with leading at scale, which your HR audience all struggle with. Keeping a large, complex organization running is difficult. So, we study growth, we study spreading things, throughout organizations, and we study how you hold the big giant thing together. That’s sort of where the book came from.

Aga Bajer 10:48

That is really fascinating, because actually, I know that a large part of our audience are scale-ups. So companies that are on this rapid growth trajectory. And so I know that people are really tuning in now. I know that, you know, one of the reasons why this happens is and we talked about this earlier, is that human beings are wired to actually add more complexity. So it’s not only that the organization is growing, right, but it’s also a human nature that makes this worse. Can you talk a little bit about this?

Bob Sutton 11:22

There’s this whole series of experiments done by a group of researchers at University of Virginia, two of the folks, her name is Gabe Adams, she’s the lead author. And then there’s a guy named Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract. And what they found is whether it’s trying to fix a university like I work in, do a soup recipe, fix a Lego model. Our default response is addition. And so in our in the book, we have the chapter on ‘addition sickness’. It’s how we human beings tackle problems as we tend to add stuff unless we stop us and then, and I think that most people in your audience know this most of your HR folks, a lot of our organizations wittingly or unwittingly provide incentives for adding things, not for subtraction or not for adding things in the first place. So if you have more employees who report to you, in most organizations, you get paid more, if you want an incentive to build a fiefdom, we’re used to that. People who add programs who start Agile, my favorite, Design Thinking, now it’s AI stuff. Those are the people that get rewarded, not the people who are slow to add, or who subtract old stuff. So, between the way we’re wired as humans in the incentives that tend to be in most of our organizations, wow, we end up with this thing where everybody adds everything. And then other than that, there’s one other thing, my favorite thing, George Carlin, the late American comedian, the way he summarized this is, “my shit is stuff, your stuff is shit.” So, the reason that my shit is stuff, that’s really important because there’s, we have this identity, or when we each of us want to add something. So, my stuff would be designed thinking. I love designed thinking, but maybe every organization on Earth doesn’t need one more management movement. So, there’s an identity thing. So there’s all these forces. But then the good news we can talk about is that some organizations actually reversed these forces, which is, it’s not impossible, it’s not hopeless.

Aga Bajer 13:23

Yeah, yeah, I definitely want to talk about this. And by the way, for our listeners, there’s a fantastic documentary about Carlin, so if you love him and want to learn more, I think it’s worth watching. Yeah. I think it has just come out. My shit is stuff and your stuff is shit.

Bob Sutton 13:41

Yes, deep knowledge.

Aga Bajer 13:43

Deep knowledge. Just want to underscore that.

Bob Sutton 13:47

We all want to add in our favorite stuff.

Aga Bajer 13:49

Yeah, totally. And, you know, I had this experience recently with one of the organizations that we work with. And at the end of it, we started laughing, because we made the presentation to this organization about how to activate and embed the new core values. And the objective of the meeting was to prioritize what’s most important and realistic to narrow it down. So, we created a road map. And we knew that it’s, there were a lot of ideas that we needed to weed out to just keep the stuff that they consider to be very useful. And what we ended up doing is adding an additional list of things to and then at the end the lead we were like…

Bob Sutton 14:36

with a human organization. That’s why!

Aga Bajer 14:39

I know it happens all the time. There’s hope, though, and I want to talk about hope. So you’ve mentioned that organizations grow larger and as they grow larger, they grow more complex, and then we have this tendency to add things to it. And we often encounter increasing friction as a result and it sounds bad. But actually, in your book, you open with a statement that friction is actually both terrible and wonderful at the same time.

Bob Sutton 15:10

Yes! As I said, we started this adventure saying friction sucks. Well, there’s a whole bunch of times when friction and going slower is better. Just for example, there is a US scandal from a Stanford dropout, Elizabeth Holmes, probably many of us have heard of Theranos. Well, one reason she didn’t get very far with her device, which didn’t work, was that the US Army wouldn’t let her put put it on helicopters without going through FDA approval. So FDA approval may seem like this big burden. But I actually want to know that a device works and it’s safe. In contrast, so I want to talk about good Stanford students. I have two Stanford students I work with, they’re founders of a company called Sequel, which is reinventing the tampon, so it leaks less. I got $5 million in venture capital. And they had to go through two years of FDA approval, which I think if women are sticking that thing in their bodies, I think they should have FDA approval. And so that’s a case where friction is actually good. And we can talk about one of my favorite things is using good friction to get rid of sort of bad friction, we can talk about some of that too. But, but you kind of need both. And in some ways, one of the points of our book is what great leaders do is they assess the situation. And this is shared true of people in HR, it shouldn’t be hard to lie, cheat and steal. It really should. On the other hand, it might be, you know, easy to get reimbursed for legitimate expenses. And to get your health insurance, whatever.

Aga Bajer 16:40

Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so you mentioned people in the HR, but obviously, it’s not just the job of the people in the in the HR, who’s responsibility is it really to fix friction?

Bob Sutton 16:52

Everyone’s. Well, so the way we think about it, is that obviously, the more senior the executive is, the more we call it their cone of friction. So our perspective, and we talked about one of our friends, venture capitalist, Michael Dearing, he talks about the the best leaders see themselves as editors in chief, and certainly, as I say, senior executives have more power. And I’ll give an example in a second. But our perspective is that everybody can be a friction fixer, if they look at their cone of friction. And the example that we use in the book is I visited the Department of Motor Vehicles. So if you want to see a whole group of people cringe about a high friction visit, you would say the Department of Motor Vehicles in California should be about as bad as it gets. Bureaucrats, long lines. So we were talking about our late mothers and my mother had passed away and one of my jobs to do was to change the title of her car. So I had to visit, this amazing thing happened, I got in line with 50 people at 7: 30 in the morning, and at 7: 45, a bureaucrat walked through, gave us forms to fill out, asked us what we were there for, sent us to the right window. And what I thought was going to be a four hour experience. It was over by 8:15. Because this guy, he was a friction fixer. And he would do things like he would tell people “I’m really sorry.” Some guy was there to get a passport. “I’m sorry, we don’t give passports, you’re just wasting your time by even visiting us, you got to visit a different government agency.” But there’s lots of examples in the book of friction fixers, starting with Winston Churchill and World War II.

Aga Bajer 18:25

Oh, I love this example.

Bob Sutton 18:27

who was really into gravity. So yeah, they sent out this gravity memo, 200, 300, 400 word gravity memo in which he urged bureaucrats to stop making things so complex. So it was only six weeks before the Blitzkrieg started the bombing of London. But to me that perspective that we all can do our part. And we all know that accountability is not just HR’s problem, not just senior executives. Since this is a culture show, the best organizations, everybody takes responsibility for making the, if you will, the right things easy and the wrong things hard.

Aga Bajer 19:01

Yeah. And you share an example. For example, well, lots of examples, actually. But this one of AstraZeneca where they had this top down and bottom up effort to get rid of friction in the system, could you describe what it was and why it was so good.

Bob Sutton 19:17

This is 2015 and AstraZeneca. What they want to do is they’re a decentralized large bureaucracy. And what they want to do is bring back time so people can spend more time doing R&D and more time on their personal lives and more time with thinking about patients. And so they had both a top down, and a bottom up subtraction movement, which was led by a small group sort of in New Jersey, but was international. So top down, they do simple things like it was hard to see more than 25 people, they’d added more steps so we wouldn’t have our inboxes sort of filled and the default meetings were changed from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, but then they had local sort of simplifications Tsars all over the world, who would lead little efforts. So in Japan, for example, the simplifications Tsar, they got everybody to save a little bit of time in, in Brazil, they had meetings every two weeks instead of every week. And in the end, at least according to their calculations, you got to be careful about these things. But they claimed that they saved 2 million hours in less than two years. And then the Center for Simplification Excellence, to their credit, at the end, they subtracted themselves, because they figured either it was infused in the culture or not. And it was time for them to go on and do something else. So I sort of liked the arc of that story. So that’s one of my favorite stories. Another maybe we should talk about simple rules, you want to talk about simple rules?

Aga Bajer 20:45

Let’s talk about simple rules, yeah.

Bob Sutton 20:47

There’s a whole bunch of things to do. But one of the things that we’ve seen, it’s very powerful. And this is something a lot of your audience might have some influence over is to have simple rules. And our favorite example, and this is sort of a scaling example. One of the things that adds friction, is the notion that what got you here won’t get you there. So for scale-ups, you have stuff that was great when the organization was little, but now kind of sucks. And one of my favorite ones. So in 2002, my co-author an earlier books, Jeff Pfeffer, and I, we met with a young Larry Page, okay, there was probably 500 people working for Google, he, I don’t even think he was a billionaire yet. And he said that a lot of his friends at Stanford were complaining because he’d interviewed him so many times, 10, 15, 20 times before he’d give them a job offer, or not, so it was driving people crazy. But he said, I’ve got to do this to build the right culture. And that was probably right in the early days. But then there’s a guy named Laszlo Bock, who was essentially head of HR for about eight years, wrote a book called Work Rules. So, Laszlo gets there. And now they have a tradition that people are interviewing 6, 8, 12. And he said, 25, as many as 25 times and still not getting a job offer. So, he did this simple rule, which was if you want to do more than four job interviews, you have to write me and I have to give you explicit permission. And he said, the speed at which it stopped was amazing. He said, I was getting like one request every two weeks. He learned about the power of authority. But it’s also a simple rule, just sort of do the multiplication of how many hours were saved, if an average of four or five interviews versus 8, 10, 12, HR, engineers time and so forth, to me, but that’s a good example of using good friction to get rid of bad friction

Aga Bajer 22:33

It really is. So it’s making the things that you don’t want to see just more difficult, right? That’s the philosophy behind it, that you want to add a little bit of friction there, where people normally maybe would slip into a certain way of doing things because they’ve been doing it, for example, for such a long time.

Bob Sutton 22:51

One of my favorite examples, and this is a problem in every organization, including my own is that some of you may know that in, in software companies, they price their software at a low enough level that people can use their credit cards and not get approval for it. So what happens is, there’s sort of this tragedy where everybody adds, well, their favorite stuff, you know, their favorite shit, which is stuff to the whole system. And then, all of a sudden, the company is filled with diverse software all over the place. So, in some of the organizations we work with, they’ll just put in a simple rule where anybody who buys any software, at any price, it stopped in the system, and then the CTO has to approve it to avoid this problem of software, sort of infecting the place. And we all struggle with that, that we use so many apps, it’s ridiculous.

Aga Bajer 23:38

Yeah, it’s so true. So sure. You know, what strikes me about the examples that you’ve shared is that the fixes are quite simple. Is that usually the rule? That actually reducing friction or increasing, right friction can be quite straightforward?

Bob Sutton 23:54

I plead guilty to telling stories about when it works, and when it’s simple. But you know, sometimes, it takes a really long time. And it’s really complicated. It can take years to fix some problems. And it just to give you my favorite example is, and I’ve mostly been talking about for profit organizations. But my favorite example of friction fixing is in the state of Michigan. And this was a subtraction effort that that we knew the students and the founders, essentially, there was this guy named Michael Brennan, who was he started a company called Civilla, a non-profit. And his big concern in the first time I met him was that anybody who applies for benefits from the state of Michigan, which is about 3 million people a year, had to fill out a form that was 42 pages long, and had 1000 questions. In fact, the first time I met him was at Stanford. He pulled it out of his back pocket within five minutes and rolled it out and started complaining about it. He was like a dog with a bone. This was his mission in life. And he fixed it. And what he did is, he started non-profit, and he got the people from the agency in Michigan who are responsible for it onboard and after three years, it’s a new form, which is 80% shorter. And all these positive things are happening, people are finishing it more quickly. There’s fewer visits to offices, there’s all these great effects. It wasn’t simple and easy. For example, there was more than 1000 pages of regulations that his team had to go through so their new simple form complied with the law. And the thing I like about that story is that it’s not a quick and easy fix. It was grinding it out for three years. And the reason that fix worked is it was a community effort where you had the bureaucrats, the non-profits, and the elected officials all got together and tried to fix it. So we have this stereotype sometime, at least the United States that oh, those bureaucrats are in the way they’re, they’re mindless, they’re heartless, they don’t care. Well, this was the exact opposite. Once those those civil servants and government leaders realized the burden that they were putting on people, they worked hard to fix it, and they all bonded together. And I just love that story. But that was years of grinding it out.

Aga Bajer 26:00

Yeah, I love that point about a community effort. And I wonder what are your thoughts? If you could elaborate on how do you bring people together and rally people around, you know, accomplishing something like that? Because often I find that you have various stakeholders engaged, and they have slightly different agendas, right. So it can be challenging to bring people around sort of the same vision and make them work in the same direction.

Bob Sutton 26:27

Well, so as you’ve just said, It ain’t easy. And in every organization I’ve ever seen, that has accomplished something great. There’s always some resistance, there’s always some argument. So when it works, to us, the people who do it, they kind of act like social movement leaders, which is they crank up the emotion around the change, and that bonds everybody together. And the best example I know, a friend of mine, John Lilly, who’s in the book, eventually a longtime tech executive, he was working at Apple when Steve Jobs took over, okay, when Steve Jobs took over in 1997, Apple is on the verge of closing and Michael Dell of Dell computers, said Jobs ought to shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders. That’s what Mike, okay, so this is Steve Jobs, who walks in, tells everybody. So, here’s what Michael Dell said. And he said, Fuck Michael Dell, we’re going to show that asshole he’s wrong. And John Lilly says, you could just feel the whole room vibrating. To me, that’s the kind of hot cause. And then they did a whole bunch of things. They restructured the organization, they got rid of almost all their old products, put in new products and so forth, that sort of fuck Michael Dell, we’re in this together. And we’re going to show him that he’s wrong. And we’re going to be proud that combination of anger and pride when we see social movements work across organizations or inside organizations. And I think to go back to the example I was using of civility in Michigan, one reason that worked is that they all had this vision that if they improve this form for 3 million Michiganders that they would be more proud of themselves. So to me, like the pride and collective anger sort of married together, are the best we can do if you want large scale change. And yes, we can talk about incentives and all sorts of things that have changed in organizations. But I think it starts with pride, and maybe a little anger.

Aga Bajer 28:26

Yeah, it’s such an important point, right. And I think other failed social movements, like Occupy Wall Street are such a great example that frustration and anger are not enough, you need that positive emotion as well. Right? Because you can be really annoyed with something and you can really get people engaged in the process of protesting and so on so forth. But unless you have that vision of what will this thing look like? And what would be the thing we could be proud of, it kind of fizzles out. So, you need that positive version as well.

Bob Sutton 29:02

The way that we put it is hot cause, cool solution. So, you get the anger or pride cranked up, maybe a little bit of both. And then you point them to specific behaviors. And if you don’t have agreement about point 2, then everybody runs off in their own direction and you don’t have low collective action, you have dispersed individual action.

Aga Bajer 29:24

So true. Okay, so let’s talk about how our listeners can become friction fixers, and, you know, do the work that they need to do in their organization. You have this thing called the Health pyramid in the book. And I’d love for us to talk about it to bring this a little bit to life and give people some actionable insights around you know, irrespective of where you are in the organization. I mean, certain things are going to be difficult if it really requires major systemic change, but there’s a lot of stuff that people can do wherever they are in the organization and I find your health pyramid super helpful in thinking, you know, what can be my role? And how can I impact that and fix some of the frictions in my organization?

Bob Sutton 30:09

The quick summary is, is actually Head of HR who said this to us once. And she said, so my job is part therapy, and part organizational change. And I think that’s not a bad summary of the health pyramid. So essentially, if you’re in a situation where the, if you will, there’s too much bad friction or not enough good friction, that at the very top of it, you can just help give people sort of therapy to get through it when you can’t fix it. So to us that’s sort of the lowest level, then kind of the next level that I think of is kind of navigation. So this is the this is the thing where you’re an insider, and though maybe you can’t fix the system as a whole, you can help people figure out the best route sort of through it. One of my favorite examples, which is which is in the book is that somebody was describing to me when you onboard people, you tell them, no matter what, do not ask Sanjay for anything. This guy named Sanjay, he was like a blocker we call “the gunk person.” And we’ve all been in organizations like that. And then we’ve talked about “grease people.” So in my organization, there’s there’s a woman named Lori Cottle, who’s our head of student services, and she’s a grease person, whenever you want to get something done, I always say to the students, ask Lori Cottle, she can fix anything if it’s legitimate, but like she loves students, and is there to make their lives better. And she knows all the rules. So she’s a grease person.

Aga Bajer 31:34

Shout out to Lori.

Bob Sutton 30:09

The next one is essentially shielding. So this is many of your managers out there know that part of their job is to protect people. One leader years ago, I remember he was an athletic director, he said “My job is to open the shit umbrella to protect you from the bureaucratic shit rolling on down.” And I remember him saying, But I say to my people, please don’t ask me to open it too often. Because every time I do it, I use political capital. When I you know, you sort of go fight for people and you protect them. And maybe you hide the project from him so that they can’t stop it. We’ve all done that. And then our other two levels are doing either local organizational change. So that’s making your own meeting shorter, for example. And then sort of our Steve Jobs, we have a great example. Satya Nadella at Microsoft, people who do system wide change. So that’s the whole pyramid, that one sentence summary, that it’s part therapy, part organizational change. And we all have to do part of that, because we’re all in systems where certain things are impossible to change. And we need to help people keep going until things are fixed, and they may never be fixed. That’s just life.

Aga Bajer 32:48

So true. And when you talk about therapy, you talk about talk therapy, right? So basically helping people to vent and just talk about stuff that is not working.

Bob Sutton 32:57

Yes.

Aga Bajer 32:58

Yeah. So important.

Bob Sutton 32:59

My favorite therapeutic approaches, which I’ve used many times is time travel or temporal distancing is to tell people, there’s very good evidence, that it may seem like hell now, but when you look back on this a month or a year from now, it’s going to just seem like a speed bump, it’s going to seem like nothing. So try to do a little time travel. So I do that very often, when people are having trouble with, with registration at Stanford, which can be difficult. I in fact, I did essentially therapy with the head of HR about two months ago about how difficult her job is, because she’s in really difficult. And I said a year from now, this will be just another speed bump. She said, Yeah, I know that. So I think that helped.

Aga Bajer 33:40

Yeah, but sometimes we need a reminder, it’s so true. And a little bit off reframing, it really helps. Because when we’re in the midst of it, we forget that it is going to be a bump in the road. These are such great points. So moving forward, I know that so we can do all those things. But I can only imagine that actually, this work is not easy. And and we you’ve alluded to it a number of times already. What are some of the typical pitfalls in this work that that people tend to fall into?

Bob Sutton 34:09

Well, two that come to mind. One is, to quote Drew Houston, the CEO of Dropbox, you’ve got to remember, it’s like mowing the lawn. They had this wonderful purge of meetings at Dropbox, when they got rid of all these standing meetings, and it was just really impressive. And we wrote it. Rebecca Hinds, one of my colleagues, and I wrote it up in ink. And it was a wonderful story. And that happened 2013. We wrote it up in 2015. We said Drew, how’s it going? He said it’s worse than ever. He said it’s like mowing the lawn, there is no one and done. So this idea of it becoming a discipline that if you come in and do a whole bunch of subtraction, or I mean we haven’t talked about things like you fix the language, you fix the handoffs, but that discipline to do it over and over again, this is not like a one time surgery and you’re fixed. And then the other thing that is, I think a bigger problem in some ways, is very often when it comes to friction issues, it ends up being sort of like an orphan problem where everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. And I would say that I’m a victim of that. So in organizations where it actually happens, what happens is that you have maybe specialists, you have incentives, you have cultural leadership, for addressing these problems, rather than having them be orphan problems that everybody knows is wrong, but nobody actually fixes. So the classic one in my recent years, is that many of us know that Microsoft for Satya Nadella when he got there, there was essentially a bunch of fiefdoms where people treated one another as dysfunctional, as enemies. It’s dysfunctional internal competition. And you’d get rewarded not just for getting ahead, but making other people look worse, which undermines all this collaboration and all these handoffs. It’s a huge source of friction. And Satya changed the definition of a superstar. He started talking about with about one Microsoft and having worked with them the last three years, it isn’t just BS, they got rid of the people who were selfish, and were not helping everybody succeed. And they changed their whole reward system, they changed how they hire people, they changed their values. And it’s a different company. So as a result, they overcame this problem, but part of it was that they changed the reward system. So it’s no longer an orphan problem. And in fact, so you’re not rewarded for adding friction.

Aga Bajer 36:32

Yeah, I love this term, by the way, an orphan problem, because it’s really speaks to the heart of what the issue is there. And having the language to address these issues is super important. Because once you can name it, I think you can tackle it, before we have the language to name those things, sometimes we can’t even wrap our minds around how to deal with a problem.

Bob Sutton 36:57

Also, I mean, one concept I’m sure you’ve talked about, popularized by one of my heroes, Amy Edmondson, is psychological safety in great organizations, people feel safe to call other people out when they’re adding friction, or maybe should make things harder to, to me, that would be the hallmark of what a great organization is. And that’s why I like to say that if, you know, essentially, don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. But there are some organizations where it’s not safe to call out things. And that’s also a huge problem. Obviously, Amy has devoted her, almost her whole career to that.

Aga Bajer 37:34

Yeah. And I do believe that, of course, there are many different reasons why people don’t have psychological safety around certain issues and organizations. But I think that one of the reasons is that people genuinely don’t have the language to talk about it. And this shared understanding that complexity is not something desirable more often than not, and simplifying things is going to be something positive. So once I think you create that awareness within your organization that we’re trying to reduce unnecessary friction, and perhaps increase the positive friction in what we’re doing, then, then I guess, that it’s easier also to talk about these issues. And here comes my question around it. Do you know of any effective ways of introducing this whole philosophy into your organization?

Bob Sutton 38:29

To me, in some ways, it does sort of start from the top. Yes, there can be little pockets. But that’s why I like the AstraZeneca example, another example, a company that I’ve been working with what I’ve been working with the key person her name’s Rebecca Hinds, she’s head of the work Innovation Lab at Asana. She actually started working on The Friction Project when she was an undergraduate. And now she has like seven people reporting to her. And they’ve done a bunch of initiatives to introduce to me especially the subtraction mindset at Asana, a software firm that’s located in the Bay Area. And to me, that’s, that’s an effective way to do it, just, for example, she had a whole bunch of volunteers at Asana, go through their calendars and rank all their standing meetings as in terms of the value and how much time they took. And for some of them, she had them, remove them, remove all standing meetings for 48 hours and add them back in and it looks like it’s saved four or five hours a week on average for the 60 people who are part of this. To me, that’s sort of spreading this attraction mindset and then and then people throughout Asana start talking about doing it. So that’s a little bit of a grassroots movement, but it’s supported by by the CEO and the senior management as well. So that would be that sort of perspective. And just you know, a famous ancient turnaround in US industry actually internationals, IBM when Lou Gerstner turned around IBM, he was very disciplined about getting people to go through and to be aware that they’re adding excessive local complexity that undermine the whole. But so, it can start from the middle, it can start from the top. But I would go back to this idea that, think of it not just as a technical problem, but as a social movement. So getting the emotions cranked up, and then linking it to specific actions that people can take. That’s where I see large scale change take place of any kind.

Aga Bajer 40:23

Yeah, I have a question about a case study that I’m super interested in exploring with you when there was a radical simplification that took place. And the person who was leading this was Donna Morris, I know that you’ve worked with her. She’s head of HR in Walmart. And I think you’ve known her since she was in Adobe. And she actually got rid of performance evaluations. And it was quite controversial. The interesting thing is that I think when you ask an average person in a large organization, what