Organisations, teams and working relationships end up driving with the brakes on because of braking friction.
Braking friction is caused by misalignments that are hard to identify and address. What makes this such a tough problem to solve is that the root causes of these misalignments are intrinsically human, very subtle and well-hidden.
Most organisations are riddled with misalignments between individuals, groups and departments. But, not all misalignments result in braking friction. Add to that the fact that every organisational situation is different, with its own unique misalignments responsible for slowing things down, and the importance of finding and focusing on the ones that really matter in your specific circumstances becomes abundantly clear.
Put simply, what causes braking friction in one situation is very unlikely to be what causes it somewhere else, even if the surface symptoms appear very similar. That’s the reason traditional off-the-shelf “best practice solutions” don’t work. These ‘one size fits all’ approaches may be tempting in theory, but invariably turn out to be ‘this-size-doesn’t-fit-us’ in practice...
Historically, few organisations have regarded eliminating braking friction as a priority. And whilst ignoring it may have been OK in the relative stability of the past, today’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world is forcing organisations to adapt or die.
What this means is that to survive and thrive, organisations must successfully navigate a journey that will take them through three evolutionary stages.
- The first stage is to get moving
- The second stage is to get ahead
- The third stage is to stay ahead.
The tabs below describe the signature characteristics of braking friction and the organisational implications at each stage:
- stage 1 - "get Moving"
- Stage 2 - "GET AHEAD"
- STAGE 3 - "STAY AHEAD"
Stage One – "Get Moving"
The “Get Moving” stage begins when an organisation recognises that it is not achieving current performance expectations and resolves to do something about it.
General symptoms and characteristics of organisations in the ‘get moving’ stage include:
In the ‘get moving’ phase a lot of time, attention and energy of senior people goes into “lighting and putting out fires". This focus on day-to-day operations occurs at the expense of more strategic and systemic long-term improvements to performance.
It can be tempting to address the feeling of 'stuckness' by simply applying more pressure. But doing this without removing the causes of braking friction significantly increases the stresses and strains on the organisation. If these internal forces are allowed to keep mounting, eventually something will break - with potentially disastrous consequences.
Braking friction at the 'get moving' stage is caused by misalignments between different parts of the organisation as it is intended to operate today - in other words the challenge is one of alignment.
Only by identifying and correcting the critical misalignments can an organisation begin to reduce the adverse effects of silos and achieve the current target level of performance and establish a solid platform for the next phase in its evolution.
I've written more about how to overcome the adverse effects of silos here.
Stage Two – "Get Ahead"
The “Get Ahead” stage begins when an organisation recognises that current performance is no longer sufficient. Things may be going well, you’re on the right track, but you'll get run over if you just sit there.
General symptoms and characteristics of organisations in the “Get Ahead” stage include:
Instead of being bogged down in day-to-day minutiae, senior managers and leaders are addressing the bigger “Get Ahead” questions, such as: “What is our organisation for? What needs do we serve? Who wants what we might offer, and what is the true nature of the value they are looking for? What might we add to the portfolio, either organically or through M&A's, that would both enable and require us to shift to a next-level awareness*?
The ideal outcome of this stage is to get ahead in ways that are hard for others to copy. Competitors can generally ‘copy and paste’ new technologies or process improvements relatively easily. However, shifting to a next-level awareness* is typically much harder to achieve and therefore offers a much more sustainable competitive advantage.
Braking friction in the “Get Ahead” stage is caused by misalignments between how things operate today and how things need to operate tomorrow - in other words the challenge is one of proactive realignment.
* The ultimate limiting factor on any organisation's performance is its awareness of why it exists. For example, Procter & Gamble’s awareness in the earlier “Get Moving” stage of their evolution was "we are a soap company".
In the “Get Ahead” stage of their evolution, P&G's awareness became "we improve the lives of the world's consumers". This enabled them to embrace non-soap products such as the Pampers diaper (nappy) range - creating and dominating a market now worth over $50 Billion. I’ve written more on the P&G Pampers story here.
Stage Three – "Stay Ahead"
The “Stay Ahead” stage begins when an organisation recognises that occasional (even if significant) steps up in performance are no longer sufficient to survive and thrive in the face of relentlessly intense and intensifying competition.
CEO Jack Welch summed this situation up in GE’s 2000 Annual report as follows: “We’ve long believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight. The only question is when.”
General symptoms and characteristics of organisations at the “Stay Ahead” stage include:
Senior managers and leaders spend most of their time, attention and energy creating a culture in which people are deeply engaged with colleagues both inside and outside the organisation to continuously create ever-increasing value, success and performance by embracing innovation as a way of life.
Braking friction in the “Stay Ahead” phase is caused by misalignments between people whose mindsets favour past certainties and those who are more future-focused. The challenge is one of continuous and never-ending dynamic realignment - in other words alignment combined with agility.
The previous ‘make & sell’ mindset was ultimately underpinned by the ‘organisation as machine’ metaphor. The new ‘sense & respond’ mindset is underpinned by the metaphor of 'organisation as living organism in an ecosystem'.
I’ve written more about this fundamental shift here.
What to do when you discover who's holding everyone else back...
Braking friction is always ultimately due to misalignments between people. But it's important to not jump to the conclusion that this means some people must be 'bad apples' that need removing from the 'organisational barrel'.
Investigating the misalignments that cause braking friction is not a witch hunt. In fact, the misaligned people responsible for the greatest braking friction often turn out to be vitally important to the future success of the organisation.
It’s true that the opposition, resistance and push back caused by these people can be frustrating. It’s also true that when you identify them it can be tempting to 'take them out into the car park and shoot them' – both to 'remove their negative influence’ and also ‘pour encourager les autres’.
As paradoxical as it may seem, the greatest opposition often comes from those with the most commitment to, and concern for, the organisation - when they don't (yet) see why a proposed change is good for the organisation.
This commitment and concern exerts a disproportionately powerful influence on the perceptions, beliefs and attitudes of many of their colleagues. In cultural terms these people are opinion leaders and bringing them on board invariably enrols many others.
If you’ve not done so already, you can find out more about eliminating braking friction by registering for FREE access to my 20 minute Senior Executive Video Guide on the homepage. This explores the impact of braking friction on customers, employees, working relationships, teams and organisations and then describes how to find and fix the specific misalignments causing braking friction in your own unique organisational reality.