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The Jazz Process: Smooth Your Way to Success by Managing Friction

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Adrian Cho, author of The Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation, and Agility, explains how friction can be both a hindrance and a necessity in the process of software development. He explores some of the types of friction and the ways that we experience them in the development cycle, and he suggests ways to mitigate friction for the sake of improving the user experience.
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Friction: The Force That Slows Progress

Friction impedes progress. It's a force that every individual and team must manage in order to deliver great results. The most obvious concept of friction comes from the laws of physics. As a ball rolls along a flat and level surface, friction causes it to slow down and eventually stop. As a ship moves through water or an aircraft flies through the air, the friction of water or air resistance slows it down. Even a body moving through outer space is subject to small frictional forces.

There are many analogous forms of friction in other domains. In business, when potential purchasers must make decisions between purchasing one product or service over others, friction is anything that slows the ability of the buyer to make a purchasing decision:

  • In low-friction markets, such as those that are highly commoditized, buyers can make purchasing decisions with ease. For example, purchasers of gasoline know that stations are everywhere and that each company's fuel is more or less the same. Prices are clearly advertised, and no hidden fees or other hooks are associated with a purchase.
  • In high-friction markets, buyers must spend a lot of time researching and comparing offerings in order to arrive at a decision. A company can win customers by reducing the friction that people experience when considering its offerings.

In social situations or collaborative interactions, social friction can take the form of disagreements and personality clashes. Not surprisingly, online communications can increase social friction. Mediums such as email can impede the personal, contextual conversation that helps to create rapport and foster trust. Consequently, misunderstandings may be more likely to occur.

In his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, Alan Cooper defined cognitive friction as "resistance encountered by a human intellect when it engages with a complex system of rules that change as the problem changes." You've encountered this friction if you've ever had difficulty programming a microwave oven, or if you've tried to pull open a door when it can only be pushed. [1]

Perhaps the best description of friction is provided by Carl von Clausewitz, the great military strategist. In his classic treatise On War, [2] von Clausewitz wrote the following in a chapter entitled "Friction in War":

Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal….

Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper….

Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.

von Clausewitz realized that friction can make execution very difficult, yet we rarely account for friction in our planning.

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