Everyone knows that it’s easier to open a door the farther away you are from the hinge. The distance between the hinge and the handle is the “radius” which directly affects the “torque” you can apply. This principle is why longer wrenches are easier to turn, and longer arms throw baseballs faster. Colloquially we describe this as **leverage **- the same amount of force goes a lot farther because of the way in which the force is applied.
Recently I’ve been obsessed with the idea of leverage in working life - are there situations where the same amount of effort causes outsized positive effects?
I suspect the simplest form of leverage, at least at work, is a meeting. Rather than having pairwise conversations with each of 5 people, you can have one meeting with everyone in the room. That advantage increases substantially if the meeting is to make a decision, rather than simply convey one. Lots of folks will be contributing, and with everyone in the same room, at the same time, you can get a pretty big multiplier effect on the value of the time.
Voice is the highest bandwidth way to communicate. It isn’t unusual, at least at my day job, to see a meeting convert what would have been 10-15 hours of total conversation into a half an hour meeting.
The problem with meetings is that everyone needs to clear out the same window of time in order to participate. In that sense, the “opportunity cost” of a meeting is cutting up everyone’s day to adjust for the slot. Is there something that’s higher leverage?
Writing might be higher leverage than meetings, simply because you don’t have to force each person to clear out the same time slot, and you have an “asset” you can then send along later on to new people. I’ve observed that the managers who write the most not only drive the organization more effectively, they have a steadily rising bank of assets that they can use with new team members. Writing is definitely slower than speaking, and a synchronous meeting can often resolve a difficulty that would be endlessly debated in slack / email, but a position piece or customer report written down is, in some sense, useful forever.
This blog is my hope to take advantage of that leverage. Many of the topics I discuss here are ones that I’ve discussed pairwise with some of you, but by putting my thoughts down in one (shareable) place, I get the advantage of “killing two birds with one stone”.
The main downside to writing is that the feedback is slower. I’ve found that conversations are high leverage for controversial, or difficult, topics because I’m not sure how it’ll end up when it starts. When the discussion is over videoconference or in-person, just the facial responses to what I’m talking about is enough for me to adjust. I have some visceral sense for what’s resonating, even if I’m not sure what to do about it.
It’s almost impossible to get that degree of feedback when writing. In fact, there seems to be a bit of a gap - if the reader strongly agrees or strongly disagrees, I’ll probably hear about it, and will be able to adjust eventually (either as an edit or a follow on to the original note). But there’s a wide valley of stuff that I assume you either mildly agree with or mildly disagree with, and I never hear about it.
Hiring is something I always seriously underestimated as a potential point of leverage. But it’s huge. Specifically, if the value to the business is X, and that value is scalable and can be hired for some cost Y, and X > Y, it always makes sense to hire, if you have the cash on hand.
Dan talks about this when describing the seeming inefficiency of big companies:
Businesses should keep adding engineers.. until the cost of adding an engineer equals the revenue gain plus the cost savings at the margin. This is often many more engineers than people realize.
Most people don’t realize this because the fully loaded cost is baked into the person hired. That is, if I have a team of 10 people, the value I’m producing is 10(X-Y), and a team of 11 would be 11(X - Y)…the team would be more productive in absolute terms, but not necessarily have leverage - its relative efficiency is the same.
Instead you should see the cost of hiring as an investment, usually spent on marketing, sourcing, recruiting, pitching to candidates, interviewing, and so on. Therefore the real measurement of value if you decide to hire is something like: (10+n)(X-Y) - Zn. where n is the number of people you recruit, Z is the cost of hiring, and X-Y » Z.
Thus the real decision is on whether to keep the team static, or invest in it. And since that decision turns a constant value producer into a positive linear one (at least in our simple model), it almost always makes sense to spend on hiring if you can afford to do so.
For programmers in the audience, you could also see this analysis as a form of Big O notation - we can measure our leverage as a function of how much investment we put in. If we get constant value, like in a single conversation with one other person, it’s O(1) (pronounced “oh of one”). In this case we get linear value - O(n).
The above mechanisms for leverage ultimately boil down to getting another person to help with a project - either in convincing them to take an action or make a decision, or in doing the substance of the work. Coding is different, in that you can get computers to do some jobs. It’s harder to teach a computer how to do something than a human, but once it’s taught, it’ll remember how to forever, and there’s usually an easy way to “clone that knowledge” to other computers.
The current zeitgeist is full of missives about “automation” and “algorithms taking over”, but I think the real advantage here is for people. If you can teach a computer how to do something, you’ll be able to be 100x more productive than someone who can’t. So it’s just a matter of learning the “language” that the computer speaks. Once you can, you’ll be able to duplicate your work extremely effectively.
I think this brings me to the meta aspect of gaining leverage. Leverage is something that tends to multiply together. We saw above how hiring is a source of leverage. But what if you hire people who write well? Now the leverage that comes from hiring is multiplied by the effectiveness of the people you’ve hired.
This meta-leverage, where the multiplier gets multiplied, can get us O(n^2) or higher power in the investment we make.
For example, time spent learning critical skills can be a powerful source of meta-leverage. Learning to code, learning to write, or learning specific skills for your work are all investments you can make that should pay off more and more over the long term.
I’ve talked about this before, but human knowledge in any particular field is shallow enough for you (yes, you) to get to, say, top 5% in the world, within a few years.
Can we go up another level? Yes I think we can. Evidence suggests that for every hour you exercise, you gain an additional 8 hours to live. And since all of the items above require time, the more time you can give yourself, the more leverage you’ll have overall.
I think we’ve run out of oxygen now. We’ve now gotten to platitudes - exercise frequently, study hard, blah blah blah. But I think the lesson from this piece is that there are very few things I do, day to day, that provide the highest form of leverage for that type of activity. Watching TV? 0 leverage. Sending a slack message? Probably constant leverage, at best. Going for a run? Very high leverage.
It means that in the micro-decisions I’m making day-to-day, I can switch out low leverage activities for high leverage ones. Lots of one-on-one meetings become group huddles. Emails to one person become shared memos for everyone. Cooking today’s lunch becomes meal-prepping for a week. Reading a book instead of browsing Hacker News. Working late on hiring instead of working late as an individual contributor. Etc. Decisions about leverage are made every day, and at least for me, it takes a concrete effort to choose the higher leverage option (usually because there’s a higher activation energy).
I wonder if, in reading this piece, other people would start to behave similarly. In that case, the highest leverage thing I could possibly do is put this in your inbox.