Last night I watched “The Bourne Ultimatum”, the film about renegade assassin Jason Bourne. In the climax, CIA operative Pamela Landy is faxing a bunch of documents that expose a conspiracy within the agency. She’s racing against the clock – a renegade CIA chief is about to break down the door. Just as the bad guy bursts in, pistol in hand, the last document is sent safely on its way.
If you’ve ever had to fax stuff in a hurry, you’ll know that in real life it never works this way. The machine is turned off, or in power-saver mode. It takes its own sweet time to warm up. It’s out of paper. You punch in the wrong number, or forget to dial an outside line. Then an error message appears. Finally the paper feed jams…
You get the drift. This is a simple illustration of an important concept in On War, the idea of “friction”. In war, friction is an “unseen, all-pervading” element – it’s about how everything can and will go wrong, how things generally don’t go to plan, and how simple things are difficult to do. In theory, war should end in extremes – short duration, a single decisive battle, total destruction. In practice, friction ensures that war is prolonged, confused and fails to result in some or all of the objectives set.
I’m taken with the concept of friction. Why? Because it says a lot about how things work, or don’t work, generally. Anyone who works in a government department, a company, a university and so on, will know how damned difficult it is to get things done, especially when the pressure’s on. Small things jam the system, simple tasks take longer than expected, things go awol, people stuff up. As Clausewitz says, “the difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable…”.
When things go pear-shaped, people assume that it’s due to inadequate organization and control. How many times have you heard someone say, “we need to put in place a system to fix that” or “we need more controls”? Actually, adding more systems and controls is the last thing you need. It makes things more complicated. It increases the chance that things will go wrong. It gives friction more room in which to play.
Clausewitz wrote that great commanders understand friction and its effects. They know how to cope with friction, through courage, composure, determination and grit. They are realistic about what can and can’t be achieved in the face of friction. They keep things simple.
These are insights that government and business managers would do well to ponder. Understanding friction, and how to deal with it, might create organizations that are more resilient, workplaces that are more productive, and managers and employees who enjoy rather than fear their work.
Perhaps managers should be encouraged to read On War too?