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5 Sources of Friction That Impede Peer Conversations—And How to Overcome Them

Coworkers in Discussion

Friction can be helpful. Without it, we would slide around uncontrollably. But too much friction can prevent us from moving forward or changing direction.

Today’s post is by James Millar, author of Building Bridges (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

Friction can be helpful. Without it, we would slide around uncontrollably. But too much friction can prevent us from moving forward or changing direction.

Sir Isaac Newton observed that a body at rest stays at rest unless it is acted upon by an unbalanced force. But this is not just true for physical objects. We have all experienced friction in other parts of our lives. For instance, when we procrastinate or make excuses, we may not apply enough force to overcome friction inherent in the status quo.

For more than a decade, I’ve seen the benefits that executives can derive from ongoing, authentic conversations with peers. And I have come to believe that every professional should belong to at least one network of trusted peers who meet regularly to exchange ideas, explore new perspectives, and maybe even share a few laughs. Yet few professionals seem to enjoy the benefits such a group can offer. I’ve often wondered why. And I’m starting to think it comes down to friction.

So, what are these sources of friction? There are at least five:

Lack of awareness. Just as few people yearned for an iPhone before it was invented, many executives don’t know they are missing a vital professional resource.

Competing priorities. Many professionals bounce all day from one meeting or call to the next, before rushing to the airport to attend a conference, client event, board meeting, or leadership retreat. They have no idea how to add one more thing to an already overloaded schedule.

Low expectations. Professional interactions are often a mess, with too many participants who have too little in common. Events may feature boring or irrelevant presentations, with limited opportunities to learn from peers. And content is often a thinly-veiled sales pitch, presented by vendors whose commercial goals are nakedly obvious. Who would want more of that?

Time is scarce, so peer interactions must be carefully designed and executed, with the right people, thoughtful agendas, rigorous preparation, and great discussions led by skilled facilitators. This takes expertise, commitment, and resources; and cutting corners rarely works.

Narrow vision. Too many executives view the world through a short-term lens. They don’t appreciate how ongoing, trust-based engagement with clients or peers can yield significant benefits over time—whether as a sponsor or a network member.

But here’s the thing: in the end, friction is usually just a design constraint. And design constraints can be overcome if we look at the problem differently.

Consider Henry Ford; When he introduced the Model T in 1908, cars were scarce, expensive, and unreliable. But Ford had a vision that influenced the design, not only of the Model T, but also of the process he used to manufacture and sell it. He declared:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

That is a compelling vision. To realize it, Ford developed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. This reduced, almost overnight, the time to build a car from 12 hours to two and a half hours. Within 10 years, Ford had sold nearly 10 million Model T’s. Suddenly, workers not only dreamed of owning a car, but they expected to own a car.

It is increasingly clear that leaders need to expect more too. They can no longer rely on what they know individually. Instead, they need to engage regularly with peers to figure out what they know collectively.

Savvy executives don’t let constraints get in their way. They apply enough energy to overcome the friction that is impeding their personal and professional development: by creating or seeking out high quality peer networks; by carving out enough time for active participation; and by focusing on the returns they, and their organizations, will realize from a more strategic investment of time and resources.

Building BridgesJames Millar is the author of BUILDING BRIDGES: The Case for Executive Peer Networks (CLICK HERE to get your copy). He is the founder of SkyBridge Associates, a company that designs, creates, and leads the executive peer networks that leaders need to build authentic relationships and share valuable insights. He is former director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School.

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