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Thursday
Feb282008

Friction

There’s a famous book on military strategy written by a Prussian general in the Napoleonic wars - “On War” by Carl von Clausewitz. It’s still studied in Military Academies all over the world. One of his concepts is that of “friction”, by which he means all the messy real-life things which get in the way of a commander’s beautifully conceived plans.

For example a commander issues orders for a battalion to advance to a certain line during the night in order to be ready to attack at dawn. But the rations are late coming up, the ammunition wagon loses a wheel, it starts to rain, the vehicles get bogged down, the streams flood, they come across an unexpected enemy patrol, the lead company gets lost, the maps are inaccurate, and someone calculated the time of dawn incorrectly. (Anyone who’s been in the Army will recognise all of these!)

Clausewitz stresses that any commander who doesn’t take the effects of friction into account when making his plans is asking for trouble. Friction is an ever present reality in war. It was in the days of Napoleon (and long before) and still is now.

In exactly the same way if we don’t take the effects of friction into account when we are planning our days, we are going to be in trouble. Often when I am talking to a meeting I ask the audience how many of them draw up a plan for each day of what they intend to do. Usually about 60 per cent put their hands up. Then I ask how many succeed in finishing their plan most days, and most people put their hands down again!

When I ask what the reason is for not getting to the end of the plan, the answer is always “Interruptions”.

Now interruptions are one type of friction, and anyone who doesn’t take interruptions into account when planning their day is asking for trouble, just like von Clausewitz’s commanders. There are many other types of friction in our work lives too. One example happened to me when my computer decided to stop working last Tuesday. Another is that I seem to have lost the charger for my laptop - just as I need to use it this weekend. Those are just two examples out of thousands.

Have a think about your day and see what types of friction are affecting your work. Once you’ve identified the concept in your life, then you can do something about it.

There are basically two things you can do about friction. One is to recognise that there is always going to be some friction however well organised you are, and not to schedule yourself so tightly that you are thrown out by it. The other is to make sure that your systems contain as little friction as possible. This is largely a question of thinking ahead to get systems right before they are needed, and taking the time to put systems errors right when you notice them.

Finally Clausewitz’s solution:

Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counter-weight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary. Moreover, there is hardly a worthwhile enterprise in war whose execution does not call for infinite effort, trouble, and privation; and as man under pressure tends to give in to physical and intellectual weakness, only great strength of will can lead to the objective. It is steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity.

Related article:

More About Systems

Related discussion:

Scheduling

Reader Comments (4)

I read a thought provoking article on estimating the time taken to complete a software project. It is common practice build up such estimates from experience of the time taken to complete comparable steps in previous similar projects. The estimates are derived from records kept in time logging systems.

The article argued that one should not say such and such a step took five hours, but two of those were because the boss wandered by and talked to me, so it really only took three. One should not log separately three hours for the software development and two for the management discussion. Instead one should log five hours for the software development.

In this way, averaged over time, one's estimates will capture the friction effects of real-world distractions, and allow one to make better estimates of future projects.
February 29, 2008 at 10:03 | Unregistered CommenterDavid C
David:

I didn't include in my examples of friction in war the discovery by the world's press that you've got the third-in-line to the throne of Britain serving in the front line - but there you are: friction is always unpredictable!

And that is precisely the problem. Because the way friction manifests itself is by its very nature unpredictable we always have a tendency to put it down as "an exception".

But the fact that we will have friction is entirely predictable - and, as you say, we must include its manifestations in our records of how long a project has taken. If our boss has a tendency to wander by and interrupt important projects for two hours at a stretch, then that needs to be budgeted for!
February 29, 2008 at 11:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
|I've found the article I was thinking of. It's at
http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2007/10/26.html
February 29, 2008 at 12:08 | Unregistered CommenterDavid C
Thanks, David.

I've read quite a few of Joel's articles - he's brilliant. In fact I think it was you who introduced me to him.

In line with Joel's guidance to linking and quoting from his site, I've had to remove the text of his article from your comment (I read it first though!)
February 29, 2008 at 13:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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