I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of leverage recently.
What do I mean by leverage? Essentially applying the metaphor of the simple machine a lever, to non-physics contexts.
In physics, a lever (from Frenchlever, “to raise”, c.f. a levant) is a rigid object that is used with an appropriate fulcrum or pivot point to either multiply the mechanical force (effort) that can be applied to another object or resistance force (load), or multiply the distance and speed at which the opposite end of the rigid object travels. This leverage is also termed mechanical advantage, and is one example of the principle of moments. A lever is one of the six simple machines.
I think of this metaphor frequently when asked to improve the effectiveness or profitability of a given project. Sometimes it’s a task that is too time consuming to accomplish by a deadline. Or a product offering that doesn’t provide as much value as it costs to implement. Or perhaps an employee that wants an opportunity to earn more money.
The last example is one that I think translates into the most accessible metaphor for placing the concept of a lever into a new context.
When I am working with an individual that wants to “climb” the ladder, so to speak, I often start the exploration by asking myself “what can this individual do that will allow me to better leverage their daily tasks into higher value”. There’s that word leverage. Let’s dissect it in this context a little deeper.
If an employee comes to work and cleans their office from top to bottom, they have spent many hours accomplishing a task. Before they came to work, the office was dirty, now that they’ve finished, the office is clean. It’s a simple equation. The value is direct and observable. Once there was a dirty office, now through the exchanging of money for focused motion, the office is now clean. The transaction has completed and the task is finished. The office will become dirty again over time, but that’s not pertinent at the moment. The value that has been created to me is a clean office, which exists today.
Now, on day two, instead of cleaning the office, they sit down and write an essay about how amazing I am. The essay is quite eloquent and convincing. It takes the same amount of time to write the essay as it did to clean the office. But when the work is done and the worker goes home, I am able to use the essay to convince others of my amazing awesomeness. Well, the ability to convince others of my awesomeness is actually quite valuable to me, and it’s reusable. I can read this essay or portions of this essay to many different people, convincing all of them of my advanced skills and excellent grooming habits, be they business contacts or romantic interests. Even though work was performed for the same duration of time, I am able to apply the product of the second day’s labor in more contexts. In this sense the time expended on the second day is more “valuable” to me. Only so many people can come through to see how immaculate I keep my office. I encounter many more people throughout the day that could use some education on my efficacy.
This is a contrived, but not far fetched, example. It’s entirely possible that I have, working with me today, people who are metaphorically cleaning their offices, when they could be writing novels. Possibly not even metaphorically… they might actually be custodians who are capable of great works of fiction.
The exercise that great managers should go through is to take each individual and ask, “how can I get more value from this individual”. When working with developers I would often tell them directly, “I want to figure out a way to pay you more money. I am actively trying to do this because the more I can afford to pay you the better it is for me.” Thinking of every member of the team in this manner channels energy towards projects and professional developments that are deemed the likeliest to produce value.
Leverage is a powerful concept. It is in physics and it is in life. Executing well on tasks that are easily leveraged creates opportunities to significantly expand an individuals potential for influence. I’ve used the financial incentive in this example, but the concept can be applied to other goals as well. How do we influence a large group of people? Either by applying massive amounts of energy across broad initiatives, or applying a smaller degree of energy into sources more likely to be a lever.
Find the levers, and push on them, hard.
postscript: I would hate for someone to misconstrue my example as being somehow against the value of manual labor, or janitorial work. Working on a task with a direct and observable result is amazingly rewarding and highly valuable. The craftsmanship displayed by those who excel in any of these tasks is awe inspiring. I’ve had the pleasure of observing first class cleaning services and I will be the first to say that it requires a high degree of skill, craftsmanship and hard work and shouldn’t be minimized.