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From the author of When Friction Is Essential

When Friction Is Essential

If friction can cause problems, it seems logical that we should attempt to eliminate it completely. However, while excessive friction is bad, a complete absence of friction can cause other problems. Friction may slow a rolling ball, but without static friction the ball would slide, rather than rolling. Without static friction, objects sitting on a table that's not perfectly level might slide off.

A friction-free market is known in economics theory as perfect competition. It's generally accepted that no real market meets all the criteria of a perfectly competitive market, although some markets come close. In a perfectly competitive market, sellers can easily enter or exit the market, which can lead to a potentially infinite number of sellers. Additionally, all products are uniform across suppliers, and all consumers and producers have free access to information about products, including pricing. Buyers don't favor any seller, and no one seller does better than any other firm.

Wharton management professor Olivier Chatain and INSEAD strategy professor Peter Zemsky found [3] that, while stronger firms want to have less friction than weaker firms, they don't want to eliminate friction altogether. They also found that increased friction decreases rivalry, since sellers don't need to compete so directly against one another. Consequently, weaker firms can actually benefit from friction, because they have the opportunity to capture buyers in niche markets that don't interest large sellers.

In a software development project, an excess of process can generate friction. Unnecessary approvals and meetings can frustrate people and slow their progress. On the other hand, a complete absence of such checkpoints may allow people to waste time working on the wrong things, or introducing bugs that require costly fixing efforts.

Opposing points of view can create friction in problem-solving discussions, but a complete absence of such views can lead to groupthink, wherein a team deludes itself into collectively thinking that it has the right solution—even when evidence suggests otherwise. Famous examples of groupthink include the failure of the U.S. military and government to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the decision of John F. Kennedy and his advisors to authorize the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the failure of NASA administrators to prevent the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, and the collapse of Enron in 2001.

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