10/10/2019 0 Comments
A New Definition of "Friction"
Last weekend, I was flipping through episodes of the Go-Giver Podcast looking for inspiration to help me with an upcoming crucial conversation. I came across an episode titled “Friction-less” and pressed play, association the word “friction” with the interpersonal friction that often manifests in tough situations.
Instead, I was introduced to an ever more useful concept from Friction-less author Roger Dooley. Dooley defines “friction” as “the unnecessary expenditure of effort to perform a task.” In the world of online shopping, friction may appear as a cumbersome check-out process that causes shoppers to abandon an online cart. Amazon famously eliminated friction by creating their patented “One Click” checkout process for frictionless shopping.
In the business world, friction costs money. Shoppers faced with unnecessary difficulty in completing a checkout process can choose to just walk away from the product.
In education, friction costs time.
For educators, unfortunately, there is no option to walk away from a cumbersome process. Repetitive paperwork processes must be endured. Tedious online processes must be completed. As teachers struggle through inefficient, repetitive, or poorly communicated processes, the time and effort expended cuts into their overall stores of energy. Institutional friction undercuts student support by siphoning time and energy that could be better applied elsewhere.
Friction rolls downhill
It’s hard to measure the exact cost of friction in education, but the wasted energy of unnecessary effort can lead to less time for teachers to plan for student success and less time for teachers to care for themselves. The trickle-down effects can lead to increased teacher burnout and threats to teacher retention.
Teachers in the trenches see, feel, and live with the impacts of inefficient processes that add friction to their work lives. I remember the frustration I always felt as an ESL team lead when I completed a form that required me to copy my students’ six weeks grades onto a form and attach a copy of the report card to that same form! A mountain of paperwork at the end of a grading period translated into either a movie day for the kids (“Don’t talk to me during class today…I’m doing paperwork!”) or a weekend stolen away from the family (“Don’t talk to me on Sunday…I’m doing paperwork!”) A tedious round of mandatory training siphoned away precious time for preparing our classrooms at the start of the year. Time spent clicking fruitlessly through a difficult online system robbed us of time for planning, grading, or just getting home before dark.
One of the biggest sources of frustration would be when I emailed someone at central office for help and was referred back to the same set of unhelpful directions that I was using in the first place. If this document answered my questions, I wouldn’t be contactig you! As a teacher, I grumbled with colleagues about the inefficient processes coming down to us from “the ivory tower” of central office.
From the central office perspective, it can be too easy to defend processes fraught with friction. From this vantage point, we see the scale of the task at hand, but see less of the on-the-ground effects of seemingly small bureaucratic demands. We focus on the legal requirements underpinning the tasks, and we live more intimately with logistic and institutional limitations. I had a chance to see this most clearly when I started my job in Professional Learning and found myself tasked with managing most dreaded of bureaucratic tasks – annual mandatory training.
Evaluating a Friction-filled Process
Nobody likes mandatory training. This annual review of such thrilling topics as bloodborne pathogens, integrated pest management, and copyright training is legally and logistically necessary to maintain safety and security within a school district. But it is also an undeniably boring and tedious process. Once I recovered from the realization that I would be deeply involved with this cumbersome experience, I started to reflect on my experiences with the task.
The mandatory training I had experienced in my career truly exemplified friction. Friction like sandpaper. Like a dry waterslide. Like a post-election family dinner. I thought back to when I had completed mandatory training the year before. The online system we use for housing online training is notoriously clunky and unintuitive, and I had hours of difficulty accessing the course content. The directions for completing the training didn’t help, and I was too embarrassed to admit to colleagues that I was stuck, so I spent prideful hours aimlessly, fruitlessly clicking around in the system. Friction.
When I started work as the person in charge of this necessary nuisance, I let myself be guided by my own experiences. Once I learned that my problem was in the way I was accessing the course, I became determined to provide the clearest directions possible in as many forms as possible. Unlike Amazon, there was nothing I could do to make the user experience itself more palatable. I couldn’t change the system we used, and I wasn’t able to program the friction out of the process. The only thing I could do was work to make directions clearer and more accessible. I found the three most frustrating, time-sucking elements of the training and designed updated instructions around those sticking points.
In another minor adjustment, I changed the style of the confirmation questions at the end of each chapter. Rather than including a “yes” or “no” option for staff members to agree that they had read and understood each training module, I included a single radial button. This ensured that there was only one option for employees to choose, and that they would choose the right one every time.
My hope was this: if I could save 10,000 employees each of 30 seconds of frustration, I can add an aggregate of 5,000 minutes of productivity back into our school district. I know that the process of mandatory training is still frustrating, still time-consuming, still tedious. But I also know that my job is to continually evaluate the process to reduce as much friction as possible.
Reducing Friction from Central Office
This work we do at central office is not glamorous, and there are days when it becomes hard to see the connection between our administrative tasks and student success. I can pour days into attempts to streamline training and create user-friendly instructions for completing training online. But I may never see any direct translation between my work and the ability of a teacher to connect with her students, to create a student-centered learning experience, or to spark imagination and inspiration in a child. If I work to remove 5 extraneous clicks from an online process, does that help kids? If I succeed in creating directions that reduce frustration with our PD system, will it really trickle down into a more engaging science lesson?
Although that connection between beaurocratic efficiency (an apparent oxymoron, I know) and student success isn’t obvious, the connection lies in the concept of friction.
1 .Get feedback and don’t make excuses for avoidable friction.
Tucked away at central office and separated from the daily bustle of campus life, it’s easy to underestimate the compounding effects of a small amount of friction. For a teacher juggling bulging class sizes, the individual needs of students, and demands from multiple district offices, any avoidable expenditure of energy that sounds like “no big deal” to central office staff has the potential to be the last friction factor on the way to burnout.
In the Disney-inspired customer service book Lessons from the Mouse, Dennis Snow recommends seeking feedback from your customer base and warns that, “Whatever you do, don’t justify the problem your customers point out. Accept the feedback and ask for more.”
In a recent conversation with a campus secretary, I was treated to the following feedback, “This ding-dang gosh-darn program is frustrating the snot out of me!” That’s friction if I’ve ever heard it! And that feedback tells me that there is still work to do to make this process less frustrating. What it doesn’t tell me is that my customer base (in this case, campus secretaries) “just need to read the directions” or that they “just need to deal with it.”
When we view campus professionals as our customers and put the customer first, we shift our willingness to apply unnecessary friction. When we hear complaints about a friction-fraught process, our job is to really listen to the teachers’ concerns and consider possible solutions.
2. When friction is truly unavoidable, distribute it wisely.
District administrators must always honor that the most important work and the hardest work of a school district happens in the classroom. Yes, central office staff works hard. We shoulder responsibility on a larger scale than classroom teachers. Our work can be high-stakes, and mistakes are highly visible with large-scale, rippling consequences. But studies have shown and that teachers are some of the most stressed-out, overworked professionals around, and that teacher stress is detrimental to students. The work teachers do is relentless and immensely meaningful, and their time is immeasurably precious. Therefore, when a process calls for inevitable inefficiency, I see it as my job to absorb as much of the blow as possible.
I work in one of the largest school districts in my state, and one of the 50 largest in the country where a commonly used phrase is “in a district our size…” The fact is, in a district our size it is inevitable that someone is going to deal with some inconvenience from time to time. In a service role, my job is to see how much of that inconvenience I can mitigate from my position so that teachers can focus on the work of teaching.
3. Plan processes with design principles and empathy for the end user.
Central office staff understands the bottom line and the necessary end result of any process. We have to plan processes with consideration to system capabilities, local policy and procedure, legal requirements, and our end goal. But we also need to apply empathy for the end user. If we offload tasks from central office to a campus, what will be the end effect, especially considering that a department across the hall may be making a similar move? If we leave new hires to “just figure out” a process, whose time are we ultimately borrowing?
Karen Lewis is a Professional Learning Coordinator in Katy ISD, decidated to championing high-quality professional learning for all educators.