Meet friction, your abrasive friend.

I was blind, so had to be led to the sink by the man in the gas mask.
He held my left hand expertly, not gingerly but with a tightness that told me he was in charge and I could trust him.
There is a wall to your left, turn towards it slowly and you will find the sink if you put your right hand forwards slowly“.

Behind me I could hear the young guy continue his mental breakdown. He thought he was Bruce Springsteen. This puzzled me, he was supposed to be in his 20’s, so why Bruce Springsteen? Probably because the guy playing him was actually his 40’s. One tiny slip in his method acting.

The scary thing was the waiting. And the encroaching terror of knowing there was a good 150 people outside waiting for me. You could only catch glimpses of them, all similarly togged up like the men inside with us, like a cross between Darth Vader and the SAS. There were huge amounts of stripy emergency tape and about 5 fire engines, I could see them through the windows as they moved around setting up “the footprint”, where there was a strict set of “zones” we were going to be moved around during “decontamination”.

Luckily I’m not blind otherwise I couldn’t have seen all this. Also, what is a blind man doing working in a post-room?

I’d been on an emergency training exercise. Playing a casualty.

It was at some old council buildings, part of some national set of prescribed war games, that all police/fire/ambulance services have to run.

Today there was a suspect package with white powder leaking out, me and 4 others in one room masquerading as a mail room, and another 5 in another part of the building. We were told to wear two sets of clothing, as the outer set would have flour on, i.e. the white powder, so people could see who was and wasn’t a casualty, and to add verisimilitude.

Everyone was  given a character card, I was 50 years old, blind, and since the package opened I had breathing difficulties. The card also had stuff on to do with breathing speed, pulse and skin colour. You carried it round with you for people to look at. IMG_20130729_075138

One of the other volunteer casualties was ex-armed forces, and did things like this for a living. His character was supposed to be a guy in his 20s, with previous psychological problems which are beginning to emerge due to the stress of the situation. He WENT FOR IT, he inhabited his character. From beginning to end he didn’t let up  or step out of character which sadly for the rest of us was “man having breakdown in enclosed surroundings”. So he had a panic attack and acted delusional. He stripped to his shorts, was shaking, sweating, yelling, a brilliant method actor

You’re in a room for a good 45 minutes before the arrive, and when they arrive they are very off-putting. Dressed like darth vader or SAS, the first people are police all encased in black rubber, SAS style gas mask on, having to shout to be heard through their gas mask it makes it all the more intimidating.

They count people and look for things, stop us moving round and drinking the bottled water. Outer set of clothes are taken off and put in corner, and shoes off. We are shuffled off to the toilets to wash our hair and faces and hands.

The ambulance crew were similarly terrifying, their suits were inflated and they carried round with them their air supply, everyone of the volunteer casualties over the age of 30 said at some point variations of, “God, it’s like at the end of E.T“. The rustling noise of them moving was horrible, and their sealed uniforms again forced them to speak very loudly.

Not a dirty protest

They went round looking at our cards, asking questions and putting  wrist bands on us with priority codes. I was a P2. Good or bad? Thankfully being blind I didn’t know my priority.

We were in the “contaminated area” for a good 90 minutes before we were allowed out, tension mounting LIKE IT WAS REAL.

We were guided along some corridor of Darth Vaders who took one of us each, put a chemical face mask on us, and made us put on some weird thick orange ponchos, took our shoes off us, watches etc, and put them into a thick plastic sealed bag we had to carry with us. Very Guantanamo.

We were led through the inflatable showers that the fire and rescue people had set up. They mucked up and partnered me the blind one, with the mad one. So in the decontamination shower he started kicking off firing water at me like the slightly deranged person he both was and was pretending to be.

Then when we got through the showers, we could take off the masks and rubber shoes we were given. ONLY THEN did he stop. And back in the room.

Turns out about a third of us would have died. They didn’t say who exactly, but I’d wager I wouldn’t have made it out alive. Not with my chest.

So what’s all his got to do with systems thinking then?

There is something that never appears in a plan, but is in the work all the time.

No time or people ever get allocated to it, but it eats them up never the less.

It is in every organisation but doesn’t even have a name in most organisations.


It was named 200 years ago, by Carl von Clausewitz, say hi!

He calls it friction.

Hi, Claus!

“In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance.”

“the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”

“…every fault and exaggeration of a theory is instantly exposed in war.”

“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is
inconceivable unless one has experienced war.

In my account of the white powder incident above, the character having a panic attack consumed one entire policeman’s time, calming him down by spending time with him, speaking to him etc. There were only 3 policemen in the whole building, so one third of resources is suddenly unpredictably  absorbed by friction.

I was blind. This wasn’t in the plans either. It takes another policeman to help me into the toilet to wash myself. Both these characteristics were put into the situation to test it purposefully.

But how the emergency services worked together, that also may have produced friction. Different people with different ideas on how to lay out the area outside the building, services arriving at different times.

All the facts of reality conspire to produce friction whenever anybody tries to do anything.

 Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a non-existent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.    Saul Alinsky

The important thing to note, friction isn’t the stuff that gets in the way. It isn’t those annoying things that if only they weren’t there, then everything would go according to plan.

Thinking that way assumes you are the centre of the universe, and the world should lay down and follow your plans. Friction isn’t your enemy. It is your friend. It is the thing that lets you know how inaccurate your mental model of the world is.

Friction is the gap between the map and the territory. Between your mental model of how things “should” work and how they DO work.

Here it is in a sum.

Friction=Reality-Your idea of reality

It is the disparity between the ideal performance of units, organisation or systems and their actual performance in real world scenarios

It is when a customer rings a call-centre because they can’t understand how to do it online, or don’t want to.

It is when someone contacts a Housing Benefit department repeatedly as their earnings fluctuate rapidly and widely, and they have to keep telling them of changes, resulting in more resources being used, and more changes being made than was ever foreseen.

Whenever some idealist conjures up a solution, they never count on friction. Things simply flow onwards according to some pre-determined plan in their head. Until friction comes along and reminds them their models are too inaccurate, they don’t look like reality is.

I doubt friction was an element in  the design of Universal credit system
I don’t think friction ever is considered when people write scripts for people in call-centres.

I am sure that friction is invisible to people writing project plans.
Does friction figure on the Prince2 syllabus?

If only friction wasn’t there in organisations, then peopple would do exactly what you wanted them to. They would read every request, understand every communication, act according to what is in someone elses head.

Sadly Luckily friction cannot be wished away. It is there to remind you of how wrong you were and help you get righter.

When you listen to a customer ringing up again to chase an order, that’s friction telling you you haven’t designed the system well enough because your thinking about the work isn’t accurate enough.

When you see the same patients again and again for the same reasons, despite an elegantly phrased public health strategy meeting it’s goals, that’s friction getting in the way of the ideas of the person who wrote the strategy.

Friction is the gap between where you are and where the world is.

Welcome friction into your life! Because without it, where would we be?

Friction: not appearing in a plan near you!

This entry was posted in command and control, learning, plans, systems thinking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Meet friction, your abrasive friend.

  1. jimmyswift&sure says:

    Might also be interesting to note that Clausewitz sought to use friction to his advantage, that is to exploit the confusion of the battle and the gap that opens between the plan and reality. He understood that to achieve this he had to move away from centralized decision making and instead he ensured subordinates were clear about his intent and that he developed their judgement, thus enabling them to make quick, sound decisions. This had the effect of his forces reacting with more speed than his enemy which resulted in them seizing initiative and opportunities that resulted from the friction of the battlefield. This ability to rapidly evaluate what is happening in relation to the decisions that you are taking was framed by Boyd into the OODA loop (Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act). Clausewitz and Boyd’s decision loop still form a fundamental logic for the British Military Doctrine and lead to a focus of ‘tempo’ and ‘getting inside the enemy’s decision loop’: none of this can be achieved by rigid, static plans. That said even when ‘plan’ is being treated as a verb rather than a noun, leaders are still human and can be susceptible to cognitive dissonance when intelligence suggests that the enemy has not made the decisions that you thought he would! For a great examination of this check out ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’ by Norman Dixon.


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