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Finding points of Leverage

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

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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Why projects go wrong. In brief.

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Flame out. Death march. Bad days and worse nights. If you work in consulting or IT or software development this has happened to you or it will. You will look up one day from whatever knowledge worker den of iniquity you call home and realize, I am screwed and it is not going to get better.

I think we are prone to such unpleasant showcases of doom because so much of what we do consists of ones and zeroes whose complexity and design are invisible to most people. We arcanely lay down our nerdy magic over the course of weeks and months and if we are not careful, smart and unusually lucky we end up being on the wrong side of the “schedule”. Generally speaking the larger the deal, project or effort the more likely it is that we will be left gored, panting on the floor, probably bleeding, definitely cursing and above all angry.

And if you are the nut-job who volunteers to lead these sorts of endeavors, you must be the sort of person who likes abuse, who relishes the thrill of knowing that at some point, in the very near future, your work life (and you had better not be taking it home) is going to go to hell. Probably in a handbasket, which will absolutely be full of unreasonable, angry people who really, really want to blame someone for their problems.

Granted you might get lucky, or if you were smart you or someone who likes you stacked the deck a bit and made sure there were people around who can both understand what happened and help. Even if these people are going to help, everyone is counting on a “fix”, which will get harder and harder as the situation unfolds. When things go from bad to worse, some people start behaving in ways that could charitably be described as irrational, but really more closely resembles the characters from Lord of the Flies.

Perhaps it does not have to be this way? Or maybe it does. Frankly I am not sure, people seem to like drama.

But there is good news. We can easily list the reasons for failure.

  1. Somebody, maybe you, but perhaps someone else did not do the right thing at the right time.
  2. Unforeseen circumstances.

We’ll start with the second item first. Put simply, this is something you cannot and should not plan for. Rogue comets hitting the office and killing your whole team, alien invasion, mass extinction or mass revelation. Everything else can generally fit into category one. But if that’s true, then doesn’t that mean that failures are always someone’s fault?

Yep and they and you will mess up again and again. Because we all are, just a bit crazy.

What was that you said? Was it something like… it profoundly sucks that most failure, even the most tragic is rooted in the day in day out lives we all take for granted, which many of us effectively sleep through.

Maybe you did not say that, maybe I am just jaded enough to put words in your mouth. Or maybe you do know that really all the pain and discomfort we feel is actually all of our own making.

The good news is, we can stop if we want to. The bad news is, many of us won’t. We don’t know how.

 

Categories: Planning, Strategy

Charlie Rose Interviewing Warren Buffett

October 4, 2008 Leave a comment

So you say – what happened in the economy?

You say, is it really that bad?

Yeah it is. Warren Buffett lays it out to Charile Rose and the money quote is “this is our financial Pearl Harbor”.

Categories: Education, Planning Tags: ,

Pre-mortems in practice

September 26, 2008 2 comments

I have recently started to use an exercise from Gary Klein’s very good book The Power of Intuition. This exercise is called a Pre-mortem, if you have lead or participated in a Post-mortem or an AAR then you can easily grasp this idea.

Essentially you and your project participants imagine that many months have passed and that your project has catastrophically failed. You have to make it clear, things have gone badly, very badly. But you say we do not know why. Gary suggests using a mythical crystal ball – I have found that this whimsy helps people relax and works to lighten the mood. However you explain the scenario just be certain to tell them a story which puts the participants in a mind set which allows them to accept that they have failed. This allow their minds to begin searching the present patterns in the project to find the sources of this horrible failure.

You then proceed as if you were performing a post-mortem, except that everyone is using their imaginations and drawing upon their past experiences to tell a story about what could happen. A real key to success here is to force the participants to describe specific scenarios – draw out the details and you can really surface your likely key challenges. However if you allow for vague platitudes like “lack of management support” or “budget cuts” you will not maximize the potential of this exercise.

Instead strive to get colorful, yet plausible scenarios like “server hardware too small due to unforeseen data on Foo server” or “competing project XYZ stole key contributor Bob McCodes aLot”. Being specific forces the participants to focus on things that can really happen which you can probably do something about, whereas vague causes of failure generally can not be fixed.

This has fantastic results and really allows people to accept the possibility of failure without getting stuck in a blame game or analysis paralysis. I have found that this exercise can allow people to prepare for the possibility of failure much more effectively than merely generically reviewing plans for risks and arriving at luke warm mitigation.

Bonus points if you review this list with your project team at least once a month to keep the possibility of failure fresh in their minds and allow those minds to keep looking for early warning signs which will show up if you are on the wrong track.

Good video on the future

I am a huge fan of TED talks and I am constantly looking for more video which is both educational and entertaining. Today I ran across (via browsing on my Apple TV, love that thing) a set of talks from “The New Yorker Conference Stories From the Near Future” and they hit the sweet spot for entertainment and mental stimulation.

So far I have made my way through watching:

A talk from Malcolm Gladwell on hiring and the issues with mismatches in the way we filter and assess people for new work. As always he shared ideas which really altered my way of thinking by questioning some fundamental assumptions we all make about how we discern the best candidates for jobs.

A talk from Eric Haseltine the former chief technology officer of the U.S. intelligence community. His was a really cogent talk on how we need to change our current processes and methods for dealing with the new security situations we face and how we need to focus on ideas as the new battlefield and not on being a bigger, badder elephant. I really enjoyed this talk as it showed to me that some people in our defense establishment may actually understand the nature of the opponents we face.

There were many other good talks and interviews. Check it out.

Categories: Education, Planning Tags: ,

Long Now Foundation has seminars…

Many of you are probably aware of the Long Now Foundation. What you may not be aware of is that they host seminars on long term thinking, and that many of them are available online. I am particularly interested in this talk by Vernor Vinge on What Happens if the Singularity Does NOT Happen and this talk by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on our Crazy Future.

Check it out: http://www.longnow.org/projects/seminars/

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