Fog, Friction, & Culture
A Communication Toolbox - Part 1
A Brief Introductory Note: A Two-Part Article
This article is part 1 of 2 focusing on common communication challenges experienced by teams along with a toolbox of concepts, models, and practices to address those challenges. Part 1 will focus on describing the nature of “fog and friction” in our work environments, how both can impact our teams and organizations, and two cultural tools leaders can employ to dramatically reduce both fog and friction. Part 2 further expands this toolbox by focusing on concepts along with management tools and processes to improve communication within teams, especially in high stress or uncertain environments.
Our Environment: Fog & Friction
Although our modern work environments are a far cry from 1800s warfare, the work of the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz provides valuable insight on why communication often breaks down within our teams and how to navigate the natural “fog” that exists in our world. While much of our work may not involve life and death decisions nor enemy actors, we all deal with uncertainty in our information and predictions along with friction amongst our teams and organizations. Broad economic trends, political movements, environmental projections, international conflicts and war, and demographic shifts are all global phenomena that bring incredible uncertainty into our lives through their long reaching and cascading impacts. Closer to home- we frequently deal with unexpected changes in our personal and professional lives. It may be an illness with an unclear prognosis, the uneasiness of a new boss at work, or moving to a new area that brings dramatic uncertainty (fog) into our life. By better understanding the nature of “the fog and friction,” we are better equipped to navigate this unavoidable feature of life.
Clausewitz authored a famous work – On War – which includes several sections that focuses on this topic and is often accredited for developing the concept of “fog of war” – although interestingly that exact phrase doesn’t appear in this text. This phrase is closely related to the uncertainty or unreliability of information, as described in the quote below:
“Lastly, the great uncertainty of all data in War is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.” - Carl von Clausewitz (On War)
For Clausewitz, much like fog over the land, uncertainty shrouds and distorts information that we use to plan and act in the world. It conceals real things within the fog so we do not know they exist, it creates shadows of things that don’t exist using our imagination and wisps of mist, and it leaves us uneasy about “what could be in the fog?” (or “what will happen?”). Aside from making this difficult to act effectively, fog undoubtedly puts an emotional burden on our teams and ourselves as well. In this way, the concept of fog represents the uncertainty or “fuzziness” that we encounter around information, individuals, organizations, and the environment.
This fog is generated from many different sources, and it is important to emphasize that it is natural – it is to be expected. That isn’t to say we just must live with it, rather, it is to say that it naturally occurs and as such we must be ready to navigate it. Anytime you have information that is imperfect (uncertain) or you have a team of people, you’re going to be dealing with some degree of “fog”. To illustrate this point, let’s explore the list of fog generators below – consider where they show up in your own experience.
Below is a short list of things that I believe generate fog in our understanding, ability to coordinate, and the effectiveness of our actions. Everything on this list has both a “now” and “over time” component which adds a layer of complexity. For example, while the intent of a leader may be clear initially (little to no fog) if that intent constantly changes it can generate a great deal of uncertainty and confusion (lots of fog). I’ve posed most of them as questions to illustrate the open-ended nature (fog) of these items.
Situational Information – Is the information uncertain (true/untrue, partially true, etc.)? Is it conflicting with other information? Is it consistently reenforced without a critical eye (group think, risk fixation, ideology)? It is up to date? Is it true but changing (true now and false tomorrow)? Was information lost as it was transmitted and/or summarized? Is this important information to know or is it fluff (signal to noise)?
Mission/Leader’s Intent – What are our primary goals? What is most important and why? What are we concretely trying to achieve (how do we make our goals real)? Is the intent realistic or symbolic? Does the intent change over time? Can the team/organization trust the leader? Is there long-term commitment to this initiative/goal/program/etc.? What is expected of me? What is expected of my team?
Knowledge of Capability/Capacity
Self – What is our personal ability to understand things and accomplish objectives? What does our past performance say about our potential success on this task? Can we accurately assess ourselves and what we are capable of?
Team – What is our team’s ability to make sense of things and accomplish goals? Are we aware of our strengths and weaknesses? Do we know each other, do we know what each other are capable of? Do we know our roles and how we work together? What is the intent of our team – do individual’s intents align – do they conflict?
Threats – What is the capabilities and intent of our competitors/enemies/threats? What are their goals and objectives? How likely are they to be able to achieve them?
Chaos/Unknown – This is the huge category of things we are not aware of or don’t understand. It can represent complex processes in the world we don’t understand (complex/chaotic systems), topic areas we don’t have knowledge around (molecular chemistry) , essential pieces of information that we don’t know (what chemical was in that crashed semi), or the truly unknown – the things we don’t even know we don’t know.
I believe that – with some exceptions- this approach captures most “fog machines” out in the world: situational information (things we want/need to know about the situation), mission/intent (what we’re trying to achieve), knowledge of capability (what can I/we do, what can our threats do), and the truly chaotic and unknown (things we do not know or are unaware of).
When in a situation where you begin to feel the fog sit in, I encourage you to scan through these prompts to explore where the fog may be coming from. It may not be initially clear why things feel uneasy or “in the fog”, but as you go through these categories you will likely find the thing that is fuzzy – unclear or uncertain. An example of this often occurs for me when teams and organizations start projects or when some projects go on too long. At some point along the process, either you or someone else has likely expressed the thought “why are we doing this again?” That is someone both realizing they are in the fog at the same time they identify its source (lack of clear mission/leader’s intent in this case).
If fog and friction is what we’re trying to avoid or mitigate, strong situational awareness is the thing we’re attempting to move towards. Within emergency management, it has been characterized as (emphasis mine):
“The ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical information about an incident. More simply, it is knowing what is going on around you. Situational Awareness requires continuous monitoring of relevant sources of information regarding actual incidents and developing hazards.” – National Response Framework (quote taken from EOC Management & Operations Course – G0775)
Essentially, situational awareness means possessing and understanding the key pieces of information you need to make effective decisions in a given situation. And while simple definitions are fantastic, let’s add a bit more nuance than “knowing what is going on around you.” There are 4 broad boxes of information to consider when trying to achieve strong situational awareness:
What is happening now?
· Everything that has happened up to this point
· What is occurring right now
What is going to happen?
· What could happen?
· What do we think will likely happen?
Myself, my team, my organization
What are we doing?
· What have we done?
· What has worked?
· What are we doing currently?
What are we going to do?
· What is our plan we’ll likely implement?
· What is our back-up plan?
· What happens if we’re wrong?
While there are a lot of potential details in each of these boxes depending on the situation, this framework breaks situational awareness into 4 broad categories: what is the situation doing/going to do, what are we doing/going to do? Each component is a baseline requirement for someone to take effective action. If we do not know what is happening now, how can we hope to understand what may happen? If we do not evaluate what may occur, how can we hope to respond to it?* If we don’t know what we’re currently doing, how can we know what may be effective or what we should do? And finally, if we don’t know what we’re going to do, how can we possibly move towards doing it?
A couple final elements to add complexity to all of this: time and communication. Even if we generate a shared understanding of each of these boxes (shared situational awareness), our job is not yet done – we must maintain that awareness. We can expect the situation to change over time, some of our assumptions to be false, and for plans to change. In this way, maintaining situational awareness amongst a team or organization is like collectively reading from a book. It isn’t enough to read from the same book – we must also be on the same page at the same time. If someone is working off a page from a week ago (last leadership update, they missed a key meeting, etc), we shouldn’t be surprised that the story doesn’t make sense to them.
*NOTE: This isn’t to say you can’t do nonpredictive decision-making approaches. In those approaches, you are simply acknowledging uncertainty in your answer to “what the situation is going to do.”
Fog does more than just cloud our situational awareness; it along with other factors produce what Clausewitz called friction. Friction represents the distance between theory and practice - between how it ideally should go and how it actually turns out. It is the pushback, tension, difficulties, chance, and resistance to our plans and actions that delays us and causes us to fall short of our ambitions. He presents this concept through an analogy involving a traveler encountering unexpected challenges on their trip:
“Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen War, Suppose now a traveller, who towards evening expects to accomplish the two stages at the end of his day’s journey, four or five leagues, with post-horses, on the high road—it is nothing. He arrives now at the last station but one, finds no horses, or very bad ones; then a hilly country, bad roads; it is a dark night, and he is glad when, after a great deal of trouble, he reaches the next station, and finds there some miserable accommodation. So in War, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark….
Friction is the only conception which in a general way corresponds to that which distinguishes real War from War on paper.” - Carl von Clausewitz (On War)
While plenty of things beyond our control can produce friction – such as chance or the unknown, there are things within our influence that routinely cause friction for our teams and organizations. The first of which has already been noted: the difference between theory and plans compared to reality. Often theories and plans represent an idealized reality (what we’d like to be true/have happen) opposed to a realistic picture (how things actually may go, including what we don’t know). When our plans or theories about the world do not match reality, we create friction through our actions. The clearest example of this can be seen in project planning. Anyone that has had to participate in a project with “optimistic deadlines” understands exactly what that friction this can create across individuals and teams. Opposed to teammates working together towards a common goal, efforts instead are often counterproductive: miscommunications due to stress and limited time, duplication or wasted work as folks scramble in an uncoordinated way to get work done, often the blame game spins up, and the final product is likely to fall short due to cut corners and errors. By being as realistic as possible in our assumptions and plans, especially when there are pulls to do otherwise (eg: political pressure), we can dramatically reduce friction.
The second source of friction cannot be completely avoided although it can absolutely be mitigated. Our imperfect understanding of the world will inherently create friction as we act. Think to the example of the traveler above, while his original plan may have been realistic – based on what he does know – his imperfect understanding about what to expect can still create friction. To put it another way, you can make the absolute best choices, based on your understanding, and still create an outcome you don’t want due to that imperfect understanding. While we can try and educate ourselves, be careful with knowns and unknowns, and manage our risk, we will always have an imperfect understanding of the world. And thus, we should always expect some degree of friction between our intent and outcomes.
Finally, friction can be generated by incompatibilities between our goals, intents, and capabilities of our teams and organizations. Let’s play with a thought experiment for a minute. Consider two organizations where everyone is working feverishly towards what they believe is the organization’s goal. Imagine now we take employees from one organization for a one-day retreat. At this retreat, we split them into 20 different groups to review the organization’s goals for the upcoming year. Each group then receives a different set of organizational goals, and at the end of the retreat everyone is sent back to immediately begin work (full of post-retreat vigor). Now, let’s envision how the daily huddles, project meetings, and leadership discussions look between the two organizations.
It isn’t hard to imagine the type of friction present in the organization with the retreat. Confusion, disagreements, conflicting and counterproductive work, and general aggravation of the workforce would be the likely outcome. While this thought experiment is a bit hyperbolic, smaller versions of this happen across organizations all the time. Leaders often fail to clearly communicate their vision and/or make errors during delegation and empowerment. People often leave meetings with different understandings of the goals and next steps, plans change after they are set, and the world evolves around us. Even with good intentions, and maybe even especially so then, we can generate friction through differences in our goals and objectives – real or perceived. Alignment across an organization can be extremely hard to achieve. Not only is there often competing interests between teams within an organization, each individual also represents a collection of goals and perspectives which can create friction if not directed towards a similar mission. Our organizations, which seem so simple in theory and on paper, are radically complex. Clausewitz expresses this idea in the context of armies (emphasis mine):
“The military machine, the Army and all belonging to it, is in fact simple, and appears on this account easy to manage. But let us reflect that no part of it is in one piece, that it is composed entirely of individuals, each of which keeps up its own friction in all directions. Theoretically all sounds very well: the commander of a battalion is responsible for the execution of the order given; and as the battalion by its discipline is glued together into one piece, and the chief must be a man of acknowledged zeal, the beam turns on an iron pin with little friction. But it is not so in reality, and all that is exaggerated and false in such a conception manifests itself at once in War. The battalion always remains composed of a number of men, of whom, if chance so wills, the most insignificant is able to occasion delay and even irregularity.”
Until we are perfect planners, have perfect understanding, and have perfectly aligned goals within our teams, we will experience friction. This isn’t cause for despair – instead it is a call to accept fog and friction as an inherent and expected part of the world. And, once we recognize and accept it, we are empowered to act on it.
Navigating the Fog & Friction: Culture & Tools
It isn’t simply enough to acknowledge and be aware of fog and friction, although awareness does go a long way, we also must understand how to mitigate and respond to the challenges they create. We cannot simply throw up our hands - as Clauswitz captures:
“For although it is a maxim in all books that we should trust only certain information, that we must be always suspicious, that is only a miserable book comfort, belonging to that description of knowledge in which writers of systems and compendiums take refuge for want of anything better to say.”
To avoid being at risk of only providing “miserable book comforts,” let’s now explore how to leverage both culture and tools to navigate the fog and friction.
Culture Concepts: Mission Orientation & Psychological Safety
There is a world of writing around work culture, how to improve it, and what the latest trend is that will “elevate your results” and “achieve synergy.” I’d like to focus instead on two concepts I believe make the largest difference in reducing fog and friction: mission orientation and psychological safety.
The first concept – mission orientation – focuses on the intents and goals of individuals, teams, and organizations. In any situation, there are nearly an endless number of details to absorb and options for action. For example, imagine a large crowd of people with as much detail as possible. Try to imagine the size of the crowd, individual people within it, and how the crowd may be moving or clumped together. Aside from the physical characteristics of each individual- such as how they look what they’re wearing, how/if they’re moving, and so forth – there is also a wealth of intangible characteristics each person possess – such as knowledge, capabilities, personality traits, and experiences. At the same time, there are nearly endless amounts of ways one could interact with the crowd – you could yell, run into it, run away from it, just ignore it, etc. Despite all these details and options, we’re not completely mentally overwhelmed when we see a crowd in real life. Our orientation to a goal (something to move towards) or hazard (something to avoid) is what allows that.
Opposed to taking in all the information available, our brains automatically select for information that is relevant to us based on what we desire or want to avoid. Consider again the same crowd, but this time, imagine that it is in a food court and the counter you want to move towards is on the other side. Opposed to taking in all the available detail about the crowd (such as current fashion trends), your brain is likely to focus on open routes through the crowd and movement of groups within the crowd. At the same time, if you had to find your friend within the crowd who just happened to be wearing a red shirt, the routes and movement of people would fade to the background as your mind focuses in on the color red as it scans the mass. All the same sensory information is there – the crowd hasn’t changed at all; it is your orientation (goal) that filters the ocean of information into something useful and raises it to your awareness. A famous example of this can be seen in the selective attention test (1½ minutes long, about half of people miss it).
In teams and organizations, this means what we’re oriented to (goals/intent) can largely determine what information we’re aware of and what actions we take. With this in mind, mission orientation -being oriented to a common mission or set of goals- is paramount for ensuring effective communication and collaboration across an organization. This isn’t a revolutionary statement, and yet, ensuring a shared understanding of goals and objectives is often where leadership falls short. Common pitfalls include: lack of clear leadership commitment to core mission (favoring personal objectives/politics/chasing the flavor of the month issues), unclear success criteria (how do we know we succeeded?), frequently changing vision, loss of fidelity as the message is passed along (the telephone game), and too many goals/objectives (not everything can be a priority).
By effectively establishing a shared mission orientation among individuals and teams, we create an environment that dramatically reduces both fog and friction. With a shared understanding of what is important (same/similar goals), it is far easier for groups to work towards a common vision and identify what information is important to get there. An improved understanding of what is important helps us cut through the fog by focusing efforts on collecting the critical information to take action (essential elements of information) while avoiding unnecessary details (noise). With teams working towards the same destination, we’re far less likely to bump into each other on the way there. Furthermore, it automatically aligns one of the primary motivators for people: purpose - the desire to do something that has meaning and is important (see Drive from Daniel Pink).
So- how do we do this? One obvious recommendation is to avoid the common pitfalls – some of these being easier than others to avoid:
- A lack of leadership commitment or a frequently changing vision are challenges that rest with that leader/leadership team. Ideally, coming to understand the importance of a shared mission orientation would resolve the lack of commitment or frequently changing vision. If not, hopefully an increased understanding of the impacts caused by of their lack of commitment may help (eg: when you change your mind, it means everyone works overtime for the next two months – or – we can’t achieve our goals because we keep changing them frequently). Practically, there is no magic recipe, phrase, or training to resolve poor leadership. In my mind, if a leader isn’t committed to the core mission, they are undoubtedly a poor leader.
- Fuzzy goals or success undefined can often be resolved with a focus on effective objective setting processes (eg: SMART goals) or potentially leadership coaching (helping build judgement, soft skills). This article will cover some tools to ensure effective communication of these goals in Part 2.
- Constantly setting too many goals or objectives may indicate an opportunity for coaching or training for a leader. Some of this may be resolved with experience – those with experience often know “slow is steady, steady is fast” – or it may require training and coaching around specific skills (eg: project management). It may also reflect a broad organizational challenge around mismatching expectations to resources (eg: a company trying to get “blood from a stone” with their workers.)
- Maintaining fidelity of the vision as it is passed along is often a major challenge as well. The meaning of things and core details often change when it is passed from one person to another. Although documents such as strategic plans and the like can help, there is often much more to a “vision” than a few goal statements. Here we can use the tool of Leader’s Intent to address this challenge while solving several more. More to come on this tool in the following section.
Assuming leadership is able to effectively set and communicate goals, the work then turns to engaging teams in the mission, helping individuals find their personal “why” in the bigger picture, and removing barriers that prevent people from focusing on the mission.
The second concept – psychological safety- is easily one of the most important tools leaders have at their disposal to help their teams navigate uncertainty and “the fog.” This concept has been studied for some time and is identified as one of the major contributors to team performance - particularly around innovation. Psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief amongst individuals as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking in the workplace” (definition pulled from meta-analysis I will be referencing on this topic). Putting it simply, psychological safety occurs when people feel safe to say what they think, that they will be respected and listened to – even if people disagree, that disagreement can be positive and constructive conflict is the norm, that people in the group tend to support one another, and that it is safe to take risks and potentially fail. Often within teams without psychological safety, people sensor themselves to avoid social or professional repercussions, are not willing to take risks due to personal costs of failure, and “elephants in the room” run rampant with no one to call them out. It isn’t unusual in these teams to frequently have a meeting in which no one really provides input or asks questions – only to then have the real meetings (where people actually say what they think) occur in cubicles and over lunch where the bosses are not present.
The impacts of psychological safety on teams is well document and often profound – and while there are some drawbacks/risks - we’ll focus on the primary benefits today. Below is a quick summary of some of these benefits:
- Increased diversity of viewpoints shared by the team: When people are willing to share their thoughts, even if they may go against the majority or leadership, you are far more likely to have a robust diversity of viewpoints. Benefits can include unique insights that would otherwise be missed, a broader perspective to inform how clients/partners may see a project or initiative, and reduced likelihood of projects that are “dead on arrival” due to problems that were ignored or hidden along the way.
- Broad increase in workplace effectiveness: Psychological safety is often noted as a major contributor to creating highly effective teams. As noted by the meta-analysis I linked previously, Google conducted a longitudinal study that found “psychological safety was identified as the number one characteristic of successful high-performing teams.” This analysis also noted it was strongly correlated with overall firm performance – and – that it appears to be an important factor across regions and cultures.
- Innovation and improvement orientation: Looking again to that meta-analysis, research has shown that psychological safety is important for developing innovative teams. They noted research that found strong correlations between psychological safety and innovation in research and development teams, knowledge creation, and manufacturing process innovation. I would add that this is a profoundly important factor when dealing with uncertainty and risk – particularly during disaster response. Teams without strong psychological safety are likely to experience significant disorder across the team and stress among individual team members. As noted by the analysis in healthcare environments, team members are far more likely to report mistakes if they do not believe they will be punished and instead processes are focused on improvement.
So, how do we increase psychological safety amongst our teams? The specific actions will look radically different depending on your organization, team, and challenges you’re facing. That being said, there are some broad themes to rely on:
- Orient your team to the mission as the “north star:” As described in the previous section, mission orientation is crucial for teams to be able to operate effectively together. Without a shared understanding of “why we are here” and “where we are going, and why,” team members will have difficulty developing a shared vision of the path forward. By having a shared vision of the path forward and a focus on that mission, teams are empowered to organize and orient around a common goal opposed to status games, interpersonal issues, or broad organizational “flavor of the month” initiatives (see most management training).
- Have high standards but expect mistakes and love them: We should have high standards for what we’re trying to achieve – our missions are often worth those high standards – but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect and love mistakes. As noted in my article about antifragility, mistakes are incredibly valuable information and antifragile leaders cherish them. If your team is afraid to make mistakes, then they will fail to push themselves and each other (out of fear) and mistakes that do happen will be hidden. Instead, anticipate that mistakes and errors will occur and welcome them like an old friend. You can only solve problems you’re aware of. By taking the fear out of errors, you empower your team to be bold with their goals and hungry for improvement. Mistakes are just the steppingstones to our goals.
- Operate with high integrity, become a foundation of trust for your team: The research is extremely clear that team members must trust their leadership for psychological safety to be present. Failing to operate with high degree of personal and professional integrity, or to be inconsistent in doing so, will leave team members uneasy and rightfully so. As leaders our actions set the standard and tone for our team. Aside from the importance of high personal and profession integrity, set the tone for your team around constructive feedback and management of mistakes. Welcome feedback and disagreement on your ideas, admit mistakes (bonus points if you show it isn’t the end of the world), and set a culture of “perfect is the enemy of good.” Empower your teams to do good in the world- don’t demand that they be perfect.
- Engage your team in decision-making, not just feedback: Inviting the team to participate in decision-making can be an extremely effective tool to build psychological safety within a team. While there is a spectrum of ways to do this (more later on the delegation continuum), the general principle here is that folks are engaged in shaping or even defining the decision – not just providing feedback on it once it is already done. By engaging the team in the decision-making process, they are told 1.) they are trusted to do so, 2.) that they have an opinion worth hearing, and 3.) that they are a part of the process opposed to just being impacted by it. This is critical for engagement and buy-in, let alone improving the actual effectiveness of your team’s decision making. Engaging your team in this type of management, known participatory management, is noted as one of the major contributors to psychological safety.
There is so much more to be said about psychological safety and leadership – but that is enough for the purposes of this toolbox. Suffice to say – if your team doesn’t feel safe don’t expect them to communicate.
Part 2 – Tools in the Toolbox
The second part of this article – focusing on specific management tools and processes to improve communication within teams – can be found here.