‘I work in a frustration factory’: how to make workplaces run better

Stanford professors Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton share tips to remove bad ‘friction’ in companies

Professors Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton realised they were on to something when executives in their management and innovation classes at Stanford University began to offer vivid descriptions of the obstacles standing in the way of their work.

“I work in a frustration factory,” said one who had enrolled in their latest course. Another, from a California technology company, was more blunt. “Professor, I’m swimming in a sea of s**t. I’ve barely got my head above the water. And you want me to show initiative? How is that possible?”

Once Sutton and Rao had unleashed the exasperation of staff entangled in red tape, worn down by petty rules and procedures, and held back by nitpicking managers and indecisive leaders, it was hard to stop them. Employees talked about “death by meeting”, “the tower of no”, “blowhard bosses” and “leadership by gobbledegook”. The duo, who together have devoted more than 70 years to teaching and studying organisational behaviour, started to collate and categorise the evidence of this frustration. Seven years later, they have distilled it into a new book.

It is a surprisingly mild title for an issue that provokes such universal irritation. Indeed, for a while, they wanted to call it “The Sh*tfixers”, which was the name of their webinar series on the topic and their initial term for people who work to remove bad friction – or inefficiencies – in companies. “The sad irony was . . . we invited [on to the show] these people who fixed friction and they came and said, ‘we’d love to help you, but can you change the name from Sh*tfixers to Fixers?’” said Rao in a virtual interview alongside Sutton. The invited guests said they loved the title, but their chief executive would not “want the world to know that our company’s full of s**t”.


The two make a jovial double act. Sutton is also the author of the bracing bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide, which lay out how to civilise the workplace and tame the jerks who often rule it.

Their last book as co-authors was 2014′s Scaling Up Excellence, about how businesses can grow without clogging themselves in process and hierarchy. In it, they celebrated Silicon Valley success stories such as Google, Facebook and Salesforce. But Sutton explains that nearly a decade later, “if you talk to people there, it’s harder and harder to get things done in those organisations”.

That sense of bubbling frustration inspired them to look at ways in which friction fixers, as they now call them, could pare back the layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and outright jobsworthiness that plague many organisations.

Some of the examples they choose will provoke a head-shake of recognition: the biotech customer service representative forced to switch between “15 applications and 20 windows on the 13-inch screen of her company laptop” because of an overload of new software unleashed by her IT managers; the healthcare chief executive nicknamed Dr TLDR (for “too long, didn’t read”) for his prolix, overfrequent memos; or the 58-page “getting a permit” document, issued by the San Francisco Planning Commission, which explicitly warns users they are about to enter “one of the most confusing processes you may ever experience”.

One reason why they took so long to write the book, however – apart from an almost daily habit of sharing the latest peer-reviewed papers on the topic with each other – is that they wanted to demonstrate how friction is, in Sutton’s words, “a double-edged sword . . . On the one hand [it] depletes initiative and collaboration and on the other are the constructive virtues of ‘good friction’”.

Friction-fixers – essentially employees focused on smoothing out workplace practices – need to conduct regular “good riddance reviews” that assess and eliminate bad processes, rules and habits. But they should also ask, “What is too simple, easy, fast and cheap around here?”

Ed Catmull, when president of Pixar, the animation studio, built good friction into the process of developing films such as Toy Story. “The goal isn’t efficiency, it is to make something good, or even great,” he explained to Sutton and Rao about the way his team worked through multiple versions of the original idea, improving it as the movie developed. Colette Cloosterman-van Eerd of Jumbo, a Dutch grocery store chain, saw the need to offset the drive for more efficiency with good friction. She instituted “slow lanes” that would allow checkout staff to chat to shoppers, particularly senior citizens who valued social interaction more than speed.

Sometimes good friction can even be used to push out bad friction. Laszlo Bock, when head of people operations at Google, faced criticism of the technology company’s long-winded recruitment process, which sometimes involved candidates and executives in as many as 25 meetings. He insisted colleagues asked his permission to conduct more than four interviews. Their reluctance to confront the boss automatically streamlined the process.

Sutton warns, though, that simple examples are exceptional. Most of the time, removing bad friction is “a long, laborious process”.

In 2015, pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca launched a “centre for simplification excellence” under executive Pushkala Subramanian. The goal of AstraZeneca’s “million-hour challenge” was to “give back” 30 minutes a week to each employee. Individual initiatives included cuts in paperwork, shorter default meeting times and swifter rollouts of technology to new staff.

The project succeeded, but Subramanian says that after her AstraZeneca experience and a later simplification task at another company, she was burnt out. She now runs a relatively simple start-up, Hellowiz, that connects experienced professionals with entrepreneurs seeking advice. “A lot of the drive to simplify at an enterprise level requires people to give up old ways, try out new ways and consistently try to influence leadership . . . It just got to be so mentally exhausting.”

Friction-fixing also goes mostly unrecognised. Candidates for senior roles are rarely asked how they smoothed bad friction or added obstacles to slow down rash decision making. Instead, “they keep adding more and more”, says Rao, creating what the two academics call “addition sickness”. This can lead to an organisational “tragedy of the commons”, where individuals are encouraged inadvertently to create collective harm.

Rather than pushing everyone to move faster, leaders should think of themselves as trustees of others’ time, Rao says. “When you emphasise speed, you’re creating time poverty in the organisation. And whenever people encounter a time famine, good people can easily do bad things.”

By contrast, when friction-fixing is done well, it can pay off for the entire organisation. For instance, within two years of starting its simplification drive, AstraZeneca had saved 2 million hours, reinvesting the time in drug trials and improved customer service. Subramanian and the AstraZeneca team were then able to push through one final act of friction-fixing. They handed the never-ending streamlining task to individual departments and functions and disbanded their simplification centre altogether. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024