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June 26, 2024   |  Articles

Structuring for Engagement of Levers and Fulcrums

Over the past few months, I have had many opportunities to articulate the connections between my TEDx talk and the work I do every day with Belleview Consulting and I have to admit that it has been harder than I thought it was going to be! In case you haven’t seen it, the talk centers around the Archimedes quote that begins “Give me a lever long enough” and highlights the need for both “Levers” (aka visionaries) and “Fulcrums” (aka implementers) if you truly want to have a meaningful impact on the world. What I have learned since giving the talk is that this metaphor comes across as more “hearts and minds” focused than the structure-oriented work I usually do.  

While I can definitely see the source of the confusion, I have always said (and laid out explicitly in this article) that a key aspect of my Operating Model work is understanding the resources you have available. For me this starts with the people already employed and requires speaking honestly about their strengths and gaps. I have also previously written about the power of abstraction.  My TEDx talk is simply a bridge across these ideas that helps shape my thinking when designing organizational structures.

I personally find this metaphor particularly helpful because levers and fulcrums are examples of simple machines, the fundamental building blocks from which so many of our most complex mechanical creations have been built. One of the early realizations that has shaped my career was that org design is similar to mechanical design in that even the most complex structures are combinations of “simple” components, aka humans. Drawing on the concept of simple machines helps remind me that an organization can become more than the sum of its human components. 

The analogy is, of course, a dramatic oversimplification when it comes to thinking about people and organizations because humans are anything but simple! Nevertheless, this concept helps me to illustrate some of the key pitfalls that I see many companies fall prey to when doing their own org design and operating model work.

Level Setting

Before I dive deeper, however, I want to take a moment to reflect on some assumptions that underlie the rest of this article. First, I built my talk around the belief that both Levers and Fulcrums are necessary for a business to be successful. The talk happens to emphasize the importance of Fulcrums but that is mostly because our society already does a great job of lauding our Levers. This article will similarly focus on supporting Fulcrums because most of the current norms and defaults in org design also recognize and reward Lever-style thinking and actions.

Second, when thinking about org and operating model design, I believe that clearly articulating growth paths with opportunities for advancement for a wide variety of people is crucial to long term success. This is largely the reasoning that has led to a separation of individual and management career tracks in Tech and other industries. Although often implemented imperfectly, I firmly believe that organizations must find the balance between conformity and the diversity of skills and perspectives at all levels to be successful. That can only happen if there are multiple paths to the upper echelons.

Finally, I want to note that most of this article happens to be focused on proactively enabling high performance rather than addressing underperformance. There is an entirely separate article to be written one day to explore how matching skills to job responsibilities through a Lever/Fulcrum lens might help resolve certain performance issues. But for now, I am mostly running with the premise of “let’s assume this person is awesome – are you recognizing and rewarding their awesomeness?”

About Those Pitfalls…

As hinted at above, perhaps the most pervasive trap that I see many founders and CEOs fall into is the assumption that all executives should be Levers. Basically, this is the belief that the only true function of the C-Suite is to provide vision and direction to the company. This is unquestionably a key function for an organization’s most senior leaders but I have seen over and over again the disasters that can result from leaving the dreamers alone and unchecked to envision the future. Without an implementer at the table, beautiful visions can be doomed to failure because they lack the nuance required to ensure that they are also achievable.

Regardless of the consequences in the C-Suite, this attitude can also have a severe impact on teams at all levels if career progression focuses too heavily on Vision at the expense of Strategy. Despite the fact that many leaders engage in planning exercises that shape Mission, Vision, and Values before turning to Strategy, implying a difference between Vision and Strategy, my experience has been that strategies have a tendency to fray into visions over time. 

Consider the fact that an effective Strategy is a combination of specific approaches and concepts that will help to achieve a Mission that aligns with a Vision and is in accordance with Values. Unfortunately, articulating that Strategy can be difficult and the Strategy may need to change as new information becomes available. A Vision is generally much easier to articulate and is often simply a sentence or two that can be incredibly inspirational. When a Lever is leading the charge, I often see high levels of frustration with the need to communicate the nuance of a Strategy with the result that the leader falls back on simply sharing the Vision.  

This can happen at all levels of an organization, you simply stop capitalizing the words once you get a few reporting levels down. As you might imagine, however, the closer you get to the levels of the organization that actually need to take action, the more important those approaches and concepts become. The result is an ironic conflation of Strategy with tactics and an, often unstated, belief that “how” is a question for “less strategic” thinkers.

The end result is a leadership team that is recognized and rewarded for clear articulation of Vision without clear accountability for actual Strategy – and often many missed targets.

Speaking of missed targets, the other major pitfall that seems to ensnare many leaders is the challenge of distinguishing between good and great Fulcrums. Because so many leaders are Levers themselves, they are often well suited to recognizing the difference between good and great Visionaries. They can see when someone else is strong at crafting and articulating Vision versus when they are merely adequate or struggling.

A fabulous Fulcrum, however, is most often recognized by the lack of SNAFUs that pop up to impede their progress. This is the career long struggle of a Systems Engineer: the best measure of a systems engineer’s success is the number of issues that never happened. Similarly, the best measure of a great Fulcrum is the scope of the initiatives that they make look easy and straightforward to complete. A good Fulcrum is actually pretty easy to spot and often is a fabulous “fire fighter”. Many organizations are also really good at recognizing and rewarding such fire fighting skills. The catch is that the best Fulcrums avoid those fires in the first place and few systems are truly calibrated to measure and appreciate the impact of their work.

How About an Example?

Interestingly, I find that Operating Models are a perfect example of how “Fulcrum work” can be strategic – and where successfully dodging fires can be easily underappreciated. It actually took me a while to realize that designing an Operating Model is strategic. Because an Operating Model exists to simplify the background “how” of their jobs (solidifying role expectations, making clear who to involve in key initiatives, etc), it always felt very tactical to me. 

But after doing this work for many years, I can confirm that there is no way to be successful at it without first clearly articulating the high level philosophies and guiding principles that will inform the design. Said differently, a well-designed operating model must leverage multiple approaches and concepts to enable achievement of the Mission in line with the Vision and in accordance with the Values. There may end up being a lot of detail in our final deliverables but an Operating Model is a Strategy at heart.

And as with any Strategy, it starts out on paper and will be quickly challenged by the realities of implementation. While I do my best to solicit input from various perspectives and to address any “gotchas” before implementation begins, perfection on paper is effectively impossible. The most successful Operating Models therefore have few flaws and those flaws are easily addressed. The least successful Operating Models are never fully implemented. The majority are somewhere in between.

Since the whole point of an effective Operating Model is for the model itself to blend into the background and make life easier through pervasive, passive support, successful models often reduce stress and pain. That reduction is fairly easy to spot and appreciate but the moment is generally short lived. As the issues are addressed and the operations begin to run more smoothly, the pain becomes a thing of the past and focus moves on to new squeaky wheels.  This is all as it should be and can still be a bit disappointing when the pain simply fades away and the kudos dwindle.

Great, So Now What?

Returning to a more optimistic and upbeat tone, there are plenty of good starting points for thinking more explicitly about the value of Fulcrums for your organization and if/how they are being recognized and rewarded. Perhaps the most straightforward is to reflect carefully on your career path designs and the requirements for your executive roles in particular. Having both Levers and Fulcrums sitting around the table will certainly introduce tension into your C-Suite’s decision making conversations but that tension could be the force that eventually propels you to greatness – or saves you from disaster.

Other strong options include introducing minimization metrics that help identify and reward departments with fewer fires or other catastrophes and checking in with employees at various levels to confirm that Strategies (not just Visions) are being effectively communicated.

Whatever path you choose, ensuring that Levers and Fulcrums are working together will always be your organization’s best chance for moving the world.

 

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