Innovation is key to success. Keeping abreast of the latest business processes and culture models can be crucial to the future of your organization. Of course, doing so is often easier said than done. Fortunately, it is possible to avoid the pain of trial and error by learning from the examples and mistakes of other organizations.

To help business leaders identify and implement the latest business practices into their own companies, Deloitte Insights compiled a series of case studies detailing successful models.

We recently had the chance to speak with John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte Center for the Edge, about the latest advances in business practice redesign. What follows is a transcript of our email conversation, minimally edited for style and clarity: One case study suggests cultivating friction among work groups to inspire new or critical thinking. How can managers go about this without causing undue argument or hard feelings?

John Hagel: There are two ways managers can go about cultivating friction without causing undue argument or hard feelings:

  1. Preventing certain types of unproductive friction: Managers can build trust and focus on the learning opportunity and the group’s larger goals. A sufficiently meaningful and urgent outcome, such as the life-or-death nature of firefighting, tends to minimize unproductive friction.
  2. Making friction more productive: This might include leading with questions rather than making pronouncements — for example, instead of saying, “That won’t work; we already tried it,” managers might ask, “What has changed that makes us believe this could work?”

When diverse people with different ideas come together, friction is inevitable — and can be highly generative. When workgroup leaders can channel that friction into challenging and strengthening the group’s thinking, new approaches can emerge. For workgroups that need to constantly develop better solutions to accelerate performance, the more diverse the flows coming together — the more friction — the better. The point isn’t just to bring in more ideas but to create something new and better when — not if — the knowledge, ideas, data, and resources conflict. That is productive friction.

Indeed, a virtuous cycle can develop. When we see friction leading to better results, we may be more willing to bring challenges and divergent views to the table, expanding the flows. But there’s a limit. Too much friction, or friction of the wrong kind, can flatten flows and derail a workgroup. Who wants to spend every meeting arguing? How will you be able to get work done if every interaction yields hard feelings? Minimizing and managing unproductive friction, then, is key to building trust and working toward encouraging member discussions that can generate better solutions.

So, managers need to determine how much friction is too much. Some signs you may need to turn down the heat include when people seem frustrated or unhappy; when people feel put down upon, dismissed, or rejected; and when some voices are not being heard.

It’s not that all of these elements need to be present, but any one of them may signal the need to minimize the types of friction that might make workgroup members hesitant to challenge and interact. In any case, the goal is not to eliminate all friction in support of “team players,” or to attempt to remove emotions and feeling from the workplace as a way of avoiding discomfort. The goal is to foster trust and respect and encourage learning conversations where workgroups can learn as much from the friction as possible.

RC: Another of the case studies talks about building a “bias toward action.” What is this? How can leaders use this strategy to achieve their goals?

JH: A “bias toward action” is what gets a workgroup to move from discussion to action as quickly as possible. In a rapidly changing world, workgroups don’t have time to react to developments; workgroup members need to increase decision-making velocity without cumbersome approval processes, taking actions quickly and learning from each one. Reactivity is not enough. The key is to choose where to act to get the best impact on the outcome over time.

A bias toward action, however, is not about acting for the sake of acting, or about acting more flexibly, or even recklessly. While speed-to-market and the ability to respond quickly to situations that arise in the moment can be incredibly useful, leaders aiming to accelerate performance improvement should focus on the actions that will help their workgroups learn faster how to reach higher and higher levels of performance. Of all the actions on the table, leaders will benefit by choosing those most likely to have an impact on the performance that matters most. The practice of biasing toward action, then, is a balancing act between speed and impact. In fact, part of the practice is knowing when not to act — and being focused on exploiting the limited time available to make the next action, and the one after that, have as much impact as possible.

To encourage a bias toward action as a means of accelerating performance improvement, leaders can:

  1. Reframe risk: Rethinking and reframing risk can make taking action more compelling. In a fast-moving environment, inaction is one of the greatest risks that workgroups face. By maximizing the upside potential of actions that are taken, leaders can reframe risk and reward.
  2. Accelerate decision-making: Too many stage gates and forms to fill out can defuse momentum and delay the learning and refinement needed to progress. Leaders can help reduce excess planning or approval-seeking behaviors. If workgroups are too slow to try things outside the status quo, they may miss valuable opportunities.
  3. Seek leverage to learn faster: By leveraging others’ capabilities to learn as fast as possible, you can spend more of your time focusing on what has not been done before.
  4. Expand the potential for improvisation: By encouraging workgroups to look for ways to tinker with their approaches, and by incorporating feedback to build on (and build in), leaders can encourage actions that elicit useful feedback faster.
  5. Create consequences for not improving performance over time: No matter how good a workgroup is at any point in time, it can always get better over time. And if it’s not, there may not be enough incentive to put the workgroup’s ideas into action.

But even the most seasoned leaders can run into roadblocks. The desire to seek consensus, reduce failure, and get all the information you need in advance can be strong, if not stifling. Those who make the most of this practice will need to develop a comfort with doing more with less.

RC: Another study delves into the importance of using reflection as a learning tool. How does this affect the action bias? Any tips for implementing a more reflective strategy?

JH: When it comes to accelerating learning and performance, there’s a paradox: If we want to have greater impact, faster, we have to slow down enough to reflect on what we’ve done and what we’re going to do. It’s a balancing act. Speed matters, of course, but we can’t focus too much on speed — otherwise, there’s no time for reflection, and reflection is critical for learning.

If your workgroup just acts and acts without pausing to understand what you’ve learned and how to apply it, you won’t likely achieve a higher level of performance. Action without reflection is a waste of time.

Taking time to step back and reflect on actions, the results of those actions, and our expectations for actions can be a rich source of insight and learning. What seemed to have a greater impact? How can we do more of that and amplify it? This process of reflection and adaptation — before action, during action, after action, and outside action — is often very powerful.

Reflecting as a group holds unique potential for uncovering more insights, drawing more connections, and using them to build better solutions. In particular, reflection can help:

  1. Draw out workgroup members’ challenges to generate new insights and ideas
  2. Build more alignment around a shared understanding of the actions that may have the greatest impact
  3. Workgroups learn more about the destination they are striving to reach and help members refine their view of the destination
  4. Workgroups break out of an incremental mindset at a time when tried-and-true techniques may prove inadequate

To encourage more reflection as a means of learning faster, leaders can:

  1. Make more of the invisible visible: By capturing what you can to feed reflection — data and formal metrics as well as the experiences and observations of group members and others — you’ll have more data and, by extension, the potential for more transparency. A more transparent group has more potential value because members can more fully understand the context of what’s going on. More context supports more action, trust, and respect, all of which can fuel richer reflection.
  2. Encourage (and seek) continuous feedback: Recognize when the workgroup isn’t getting the rich, real-time, and context-specific performance feedback it needs. In this context, feedback isn’t an evaluative or punitive tool or a check-the-box reporting activity. The purpose of giving and receiving feedback is to discover something we don’t know — feedback that is expected or confirms what we believe is less useful than that which is surprising.
  3. Encourage the workgroup to reflect on its successes as well as its failures: These types of thoughtful reviews require groups to commit time and resources, and for members to participate in a spirit of creating something better rather than defending a position, rationalizing results, or gaining status. To generate more actionable insights and avoid check-the-box status meetings, reviews should prioritize whatever is surprising — good or bad — and focus on causality. The goal is to improve impact, and to do that, groups need to better understand what drives impact and how best to affect those drivers.

Reflection often comes with its fair share of resistance. Many parts of the workgroup or the organization may feel like what they are doing is working and, as a result, not feel the need to change. Those that are already successful may resist attempts to try new things, and others may be under so much pressure that they might feel they don’t have the time to debate what they would do differently. To overcome some of these challenges, leaders should focus on opportunities to improve rapidly and devote resources to doing more of that.

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