Functional Friction

by Wiemer KuikJuly 15, 2019

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“I studied politics” she said. “The study of political systems”. Always interesting to ask people you meet for the first time, what they have done before working in IT. Brilliant lady, impressive, responsible for digital in a lot of countries.

We talked about outsourcing, if there is a future for outsourcing, and what that would look like. I think the short version of the story was to keep delivering services that are no longer needed today, just because there is an old contract in place, might not be the way forward for outsourcing. Fair enough. At one point she told me that the 2 flavours of transformation triggers she learned in the university was the slow enforced change: making Tobacco ever more expensive up till the point people stop using it. And the friction type of trigger. “I only really started to appreciate the friction approach when I started working in IT” she said. And then the statement came: I now see why I need to sometimes throw in more friction in between 2 connected dysfunctional systems, more friction to make them transform faster.

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That vision really captivated me. I’ve been reading some books on the topic for the last 2 weeks, trying to get my head around this. More friction to expose underlying reasons, to faster start the transformation? In my work back in the ERP days, we always started with finding the bottleneck, the theory of constraints approach. Solved the constraint, on to the next. And later on started teaching at university on topics like 6 Sigma, and the one I love: VSM – value stream mapping. Trying to find friction, waste, from the customer point of view and reduce it: not increase it!

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Have I personally experienced this approach that favours increasing friction? And then, after all these years I figured out how my wife’s’ mind works. In the beginning when we were together, occasionally she would get upset. I could sense she was upset, it just did not make any sense to me. Sensing, no sensemaking. Didn’t close a drawer, failed to execute on the LIST (No need to remind me of that list every 6 months woman said no man ever). I figured out that the reason why she was angry at me normally was something else than the direct trigger, more a cumulation of triggers. When it would escalate nicely, and it became clear my life expectancy was about to be drastically reduced, and the friction increased: I figured it out. Well, most of the times anyway. Mind you, this is decades ago. I am so much wiser now…

Later on, when we got kids, the kids would start crying. All I could hear was: kids crying. My wife would say: he is hungry or needs to go to bed, or he is in pain. Or we can ignore him; let him cry. Huh? How do you know that! No clue, clueless dad. Then when I was taking care of our kids as she was off to work or out with friends (not babysitting, as a dad you cannot babysit your own kids) the kids would cry. What to do now? With all the stress, 1 kid starting cry, the other 2 chiming in for fun, all that crying, I slowly learned the same trick. More stress, more friction, faster learning, I now can directly tell food, sleep, pain, or nothing, with any kid. Ready to be a grandad, no pressures my sons.

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So can the same principle be applied to digital transformation? If we take the friction between the pace of the customer changing vs the lacking behind speed of the change of the business model and value proposition? 2 wheels interacting with different speeds? The customer one spinning much faster than the business one: and every day we’re trying to reduce the friction.

According to what we have learned, reduce the friction! What would be the outcome if we would increase friction? Add friction to the mismatch of the customer and business systems? Or add friction to the mismatch of the business and IT systems. Would that helps us to transform faster? What Wim and me have seen a lot working on our digital transformation framework, are the problems of fairly steady cashflows, slowly declining revenues but ok margins. Companies that seemingly don’t have a problem. And as they don’t have a problem, they don’t change, or only pay lip service to digital transformation. Quarterly metrics getting in the way of strategy. And by the time they are really getting into trouble, the cashflow rapidly declining, and the margin vaporised: no money to transform anymore. End of the road. Nokia in the making: crying on stage: we did nothing wrong!

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Imagine we would add friction, highly targeted micro friction into the system. Micro friction to interact with the overall business – customer wheels out of sync. Would that help the typical everything is ok companies to much faster see, feel and realise the magnitude of the problems they are facing? See and start acting now?

Friction, a brief increase of harm on a few of the most important metrics. Exposing the watermelon KPI’s. Separating the green from the red. Increase sensing, trigger sensemaking to start acting. If it works in politics, why couldn’t that work in digital transformation? And just to avoid any confusion we can invent a new indicator: Key Friction Indicator, KFI. The indicator to trigger transformation faster, earlier, in time. Fascinating idea, one more pattern that might well help to identify the handles on systemic digital transformation we’re looking for. Functional friction.

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