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Move the Earth!

“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth”
“δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω”

Archimedes is described as a mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and inventor. He was a Greek from Syracuse, on the east coast of the island of Sicily. While generally considered one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived, he was better known in the ancient world as an inventor. Interestingly, some of his work was thought to be lost until the Archimedes Palimpsest (basically, the original work was “overwritten” by another work) was discovered and published in the early 20th century.

His achievements were numerous, and included work on deriving and proving geometrical theorems such as the area of a circle and an approximation of the value of pi, along with designing screw-pumps, pulley systems, and improving the accuracy and power of the catapult.

An interesting aspect of his work is that he appears to have anticipated two key concepts of modern calculus in his work: the concepts of the infinitely small and the method of exhaustion. Archimedes used these to compute the area inside a circle by approximating it using polygons with greater numbers of sides.

Looking at this from a modern perspective, I think it’s hard to understand how radical and innovative these ideas were at that time, and it’s an interesting illustration of how we build on prior work. This process did not begin with the modern scientific method. Instead, the innovation of the modern scientific method was to make the process self-correcting, so that demonstrably correct ideas are kept, and disproven ideas are abandoned.

So, Archimedes saying he could move the Earth is “simply” an understanding that the effectiveness of a lever is not theoretically limited and that any weight can theoretically be moved if a sufficiently long lever and force are used.(Needless to say, things get complicated when things get large... How massive would a sufficiently “long” and “strong” lever need to be? What would it need to be made of? How would you apply the force? What about gravitational effects? What about... Never mind. You get the idea.)

Still, levers are extraordinarily valuable, and understanding them is very useful.

Can we apply the concept of leverage in other areas?

There are different roles in any organization, and there are usually a series of links and dependencies from “upstream” to “downstream”. Different people generally manage the hardware, the network, the database, the application, and so on. In many organizations (particularly as they grow), different groups are consolidated into centralized teams which specialize in a particular area. So, rather than having different server farms and administration teams for different business units, consolidate all of the server operations into a single data centre and server operations team.

By centralizing these functions, the business will be able to manage things more efficiently and effectively, saving resources and time and money.

Let’s invent a “silly” example, and say that our friends Alice and Bob have decided that everyone should have a consistent email signature, with name, title, contact information, corporate logo, and so on. They decide that they will define the standard, then distribute the instructions and standards and ask the group leads to make sure that everyone on each of the teams follows the standard.

This can work, of course. Consider that it takes an hour to define the standard, then another hour to document the instructions, then 15 minutes for each person to set up their signatures, along with follow-ups to ensure that everyone has done so. If there are 100 people, then 1h + 1h + 100 * 15 minutes = 27 hours.

Now, Bob likes efficiency, and realizes that the signature standard will likely change from time to time, so Bob builds a tool that generates a signature from the standards document in 5 minutes rather than 15. Let’s say this takes 2 hours to develop, then 5 minutes to run.

Is this a good use of Bob’s time?

Well, if you compare 15 minutes with 2 hours + 5 minutes, not so much.

Now, let’s say that the signature will change in some way every year. At that rate, it would take about 13 years to break even. Doesn’t seem very efficient, does it?

Now consider that Bob posts the tool internally and makes it available to the team of 19 people (+ Bob to make 20). We now have 20 * 15 minutes = 5 hours to compare with 2 hours + 20 * 5 minutes = 3.6 hours in the first year, to break even in the first year. Now extend this to 13 years as well, and we’ve saved about 40 hours. And if this process is extended to the entire organization, the savings is even bigger.

So, yes, this is arguably a good use of Bob’s time.

But wait! There’s more!

Consider that Bob has saved time for the team, and they could use that time to do work that will increase automation and improve the efficiency of teams “downstream” from them. The ripple effect can be massive, depending on how an organization is structured, so the further “upstream” you are, the greater the potential leverage you can have on the teams downstream from you.

Now, this is admittedly a trivial example, but illustrative of the broader impact that people can have in an organization if they think in terms of leverage. You can also think of it in terms of ROI (Return On Investment), but the idea is the same. How can I determine the best use of my time, and how can I maximize the benefit for my team?

Taking Bob’s case a bit further, we have demonstrated that this was a “good” (ie, positive value) use of Bob’s time (though not necessarily the “best” use of Bob’s time), but what if Bob focused on educating the team so that everyone thought in this way, and coached them to always consider options involving the concept of leverage? In that scenario, one of Bob’s team would probably have built the tool instead, and others would be working on other tools to improve efficiency.

This is a change in mindset that takes time and practice to develop, but the long-term impact can be enormous, and this is the sort of thing that defines an “innovative” organization and sets the stage for success in almost anything.

What’s the best use of your time?



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