The temptations of leverage

I was involved in a really lively discussion the other day with a group of people trying to help a charity with marketing. I found myself coming up with ways for it get more leverage, ie greater awareness, better fundraising for its efforts. Lots of quite good ideas were generated by folks.

But I left with a vague sense of unease. A feeling that I hadn’t really been that helpful. Then I remembered writing this post a few years back – blancmange leveraging. Snip:

It’s said that Tony Blair admitted his discomfort at finding, during his first months of office, that he kept pulling the levers of power and then discovering they weren’t connected to anything. I think he spent the next few years trying to make the levers work, and I think we all know how that experiment worked out.

I think it’s very tempting to get into conversations about leveraging things and asking how they can be scaled. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I suspect it disconnects us from reality quite quickly.

And in organisations it seems to me that if everyone is looking for scale and leverage, we can end up in conversations where more and more of the effort is an attempt to gain status rather than confront truth. We are competing to be more strategic than each other and it takes some guts to argue for something more humble (eg a quick and dirty prototype and a rapid test). And if our test for any idea is that it must scale, we never get to do that test and see what surprises it might hold for us.

In the training context, we think we can scale things by reducing complex challenges to simple rules.  We think the rules have scale and reach, not noticing that actually they are open to massive mutation and reinterpretation.

So if we say, for example, that every meeting must result in action points it sounds like a useful intervention in favour of action. But what if the meeting can’t agree? Well, the zealots tend to bluster, they need to agree an action of …. err… discussing further. (Or maybe they need to make something up that sounds like an action). In the end, the rule maker can’t really accept the incoherence of their rule, and settles for a fudge that let’s them appear superficially powerful.

The rule is really being watered down to the point of what Dave Snowden calls linguistic conformance or (crudely) lip service. If the rule is really precise and demanding, it can’t be universal, and to be universal it has to be watered down to the point of having no great meaning.

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