Warfighting and Business – Friction

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The field of warfighting is full of words that do not translate well into “civilian”. An example: recently I was in a conversation and wanted to ensure the other conversant knew I understood what they were saying and took responsibility for acting upon that knowledge. This word for this is “tracking”, this did not translate well. The warfighter language is riddled with loaded language that can express huge amounts of information in a very short time (much like any professional jargon).  This language barrier is one of the reasons that the practical knowledge from the warfighting community does not get transmitted well into other segments of society. It is a source communication “friction”.

If a sentence referring to a physical force effecting communication was a but rough, read on “friction” is another loaded word.

The genesis of the word “friction” in warfighting language can be traced to Carl von Clausewitz and his book “On War”. Clausewitz noted “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”1 His description went even further in a book that became extremely influential in the formation of western military theory to this day. This concept of friction was reinforced in Marine thinking and defined as “the force that resists all action and saps energy. It makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.” The Corps traces the source of friction to the competing systems dynamic in saying “In this dynamic environment of interacting forces, friction abounds.”

Friction can either be mental or physical. The distinction here can be a bit hazy: if you are mentally tired from being in cold weather, then both the cold and the mental effects are friction. What is important is being able to identify sources of friction, not as some academic study or to complain, but to mitigate their effects on your operations. An important note here is that indecisiveness is a source of friction as it has physical effects that make everything harder. By noting indecisiveness as a source of friction we can readily draw the conclusion that friction can be self-induced: your actions and inactions can be a source of friction, just as as anyone in your system or organization.

Back to business: friction exists in businesses. Be it a marketing campaign or sales pitch that just isn’t working, or an operational problem such as a lack of deciding how to re-prioritize a schedule. Friction is a real and present problem in business. Much of it arises from the employees and business not understanding their place as a complex system that solves a problem for other complex systems, a reduction to statistics and performance indicators can quickly have this effect, though not as quickly as apathy. Rules, regulations, procedures, work instructions, and complicated tables of organizational structure can all create friction by either absolving responsibility or creating extra levels of complexity that impede decisive decision making on all levels. Clear concise communication can do much to help absolve friction created by complexity, so can a shared awareness of the problem and desired outcome.

Friction is not some absolute force that cannot be stopped. And here is the great thing – every organization has sources of friction. From a business standpoint a good start in creating a comparative advantage is to reduce friction in your operations. But as you improve your operations you must account for the inevitable friction. From a military standpoint we know this to be very true, there are many forces fighting against you accomplishing a mission, and you overcome these forces to impose your will on the enemy. Similarly, the business leader must overcome sources of friction in order to provide a valuable service or good to the customer. The leader who does best inspires those around them to do the same. To inspire a friction fighting vs friction controlled organization the leader mist be able to identify sources of friction and take action to mitigate the effects, a good way to do this: lead by example and show your team how to fight friction points – in person if possible.

Valhalla Awaits,


Plugging our flagship product: WHOF was made to reduce mental friction

  1. Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (p. 119). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

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