Home > Agility, Planning, Strategy > Finding points of Leverage

Finding points of Leverage

Some people approach difficult situations by first searching for the point where they can apply a small amount of pressure and make a very large change. Seemingly they do little and big changes occur almost magically.

A particular mindset and approach to solving problems helps me find significant leverage. When solving problems I intentionally search for leverage points, I intentionally look for big ideas which can act as a beginning focus for building effective solutions.

In general when I search for leverage I only find fragmentary solutions or kernels of ideas. This means that I have to build a solution around the good idea; I have to fill in the remaining details, thereby exploiting the insight to the fullest.

A good example of finding points of leverage to solve problems is found in one of my favorite mental domains. Rock climbing. Imagine you are a climber approaching a particularly tough pitch. You are moving from hold to hold, and you know that holds do not have context-free features – meaning that their ability to propel you up the mountain is determined by both you (are you tired? hands slick from sweat? particularly tall or short?), their shape and size (rough or smooth rock, large or small hold, vertical or horizontal orientation and/or size) and the environment (is ice present? has it rained?). To succeed you must constantly re-orient your thinking and approach as you plot your moves and execute them. You must continuously look at each new position and analyze the many aspects of what you observe while cross referencing your implicit and explicit knowledge to synthesize subtle adjustments to your approach. This process allows a climber to continue to move safely and efficiently to a summit while continuously being confronted with new terrain and context. It is this same mental exercise we use when we examine problems in search of points of leverage.

In practice how can you do this for novel problems? First have a clear understanding of several different definitions of what success looks like in your problem domain. Review your problem from several different angles and viewpoints, think about both your explicit and implicit resources and constraints. Then look at several potential solutions by mentally simulating several steps forward from the very first step and by working backward from some defined success condition.  As you think about the problem recursively apply a process of analysis by breaking the problem into smaller and smaller pieces. Look at the different aspects of each small piece and search for and review novel solutions to each. Keep imagining different solutions and as you review and decompose your problem you will likely find an area where you can generate leverage. As you go, keep evaluating what success looks like – it may be possible to redefine your goals as you understand the problem more deeply, this may help you find new areas where you can apply pressure to get the results you want. Also look for and avoid choke points. Just as we can spot points of leverage, we can also discern scenarios where particularly large or unexpected resources are required. In our rock climbing example the avoidance of dead ends or approaches which need heroic efforts to summit should be avoided.

Another example from business of finding a tremendous point of leverage was Boeing’s leap of faith taking us into the jet age of transport. When Boeing’s engineers saw the advantage jet engines have over propeller driven aircraft they surmised that they could realize a significant competitive advantage. Of course they now had to build jet engines and the planes to go around them, but once they did the market for passenger jet aircraft was immense.

For more reading on problem solving and finding points of leverage read “Sources of Power” by Gary Klein.

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