Friction versus Conviction


It’s the 29th… tricksy February… and that gives us another opportunity for a chat.

A friend asked me the other day, “When is the right time to have doubts, and when is the right time to have conviction?” There’s an obvious, short-hand answer to this. Read on! – but read with scepticism.

Have doubts when you’re deciding, planning or creating. When the time comes for action, act with conviction.


Hmmm.... okay. That’s a broad brushstroke, and it’s not a bad generalisation. The truth is always more grey. I’m going to talk about two reasons which complicate the above suggestion.


First, there are processes which benefit from friction (such as deliberating on a big decision) and processes which should be frictionless (like taking action).

I’m using the word “friction” here to indicate those things which frustrate, delay, or complicate things. They’re uncomfortable, annoying, and at certain points, very necessary. Doubt isn't a pleasant emotion. Questioning your assumptions, getting contrasting viewpoints from people with different agendas, plotting out possible consequences…. all of these things are friction, and they all improve the quality of decisions, the depth of creative projects, and the possibility of coming up with truly new ideas.

Why do big cities work? They shouldn’t. They need more infrastructure than small towns, things are more expensive (like rent) but big cities just keep growing. 85% of Australians live in big cities. The truth is that living shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of other people forces you to look at the world in different ways. The pace of living is faster – and while it’s intoxicating, it is also frustrating.

Frustration encourages people to come up with novelty.

Frictionless processes are streamlined, smooth and pleasant. Distractions and interruptions are minimised, the IT equipment works, and everyone is working towards the same clear goal. It’s useful to remove friction from tasks which are basic, frequent, irrelevant to the job, or those that could be dangerous. To put it another way, your employees shouldn’t have to struggle to find a car park or a first aid kit.

Squinting through the keyhole

Have you ever needed to take decisive action when you’re not 100% sure, either of the facts, or of how you feel about the decision? I'm sure that anyone who has ever painted a house or booked a holiday has felt this way. You may find it uncomfortable (or you may be one of those remarkable people who relish it.)

Perfect knowledge is unattainable, partly because we haven’t got all day for it to come in, and partly because working out The Final Truth is like trying to work out what’s in the next room by squinting through the keyhole.* We only ever see a part of the real world - and we still need to make decisions and take definite action. That’s okay, as long as you acknowledge that you could be wrong, and you’re ready to jump to Plan B when it turns out that you were. It can be really hard to let go of Plan A, especially when it’s beautiful and clever; but if coming up with a beautiful plan takes genius, being willing to let it go is divine. We should never criticize people for changing their minds when new information comes in.

* The keyhole can be a metaphor for a few things, but for the sake of convenience I’m going to say it’s a symbol of human limitations.

In short…

We need to be able to doubt ourselves, and we need to have confidence. If you feel that you’re too much one or the other, that’s great! You've got one of the boxes ticked. Work gradually towards the other one.

For those of you who have some agency over the projects you're involved in, are there processes that need more friction, more questioning of assumptions, more arguments? Can you throw some constructive sand into that engine? For the processes that need streamlining, is there a way to smooth them? (We've all got to fight the accumulation of unnecessary paperwork and pointless meetings!)

Good luck,