The power of project management lies in leveraging asymmetry to achieve desired outcomes. Influential stakeholders, skilled engineers, or access to cutting-edge technology can be powerful levers, but they also come with risks. It’s a double-edged sword, with success or failure often hinged on a delicate balance. In this article, we’ll explore some approaches to maximizing leverage while maintaining integrity and responsibility.

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Escalate like a businessman

Escalate: reach out in the hierarchy

Imagine a project where you need to shoot a man to the moon again. It’s not a simply constrained project as it doesn’t depend only on a budget or some other finite resource (such as time, energy, or engineering prowess). It’s an open secret that Elon Musk is heavily supported by the national space program, not only in terms of budgeting but in the first place, by necessary legislation. Even if you are a titan, you need to position yourself up on giant shoulders. My former boss coined the term “If you need to shoot someone to the moon, you need to visit the Oval Office first”. You need to either develop your own leverage or acquire, borrow, or even steal some. For Musk fulcrum is probably money but I’m pretty sure that his leverage comes from the vast connections and talks with US government authorities.  

Figure 1. Escalations
Source: Own graphic

Escalate: elevate the important

As President Roosevelt noticed “you need to speak softly but carry a big stick” (or lever!).  The know-how of doing business (which is also Project Management) is to escalate, which means to pick up and elevate important issues, so they are seen and eventually are actionable by the key people. PM must have a repertoire of “sticks”. Utilizing those sticks, rods, wands, or levers deliberately is the art of escalation. 

Escalate: knock at the right door

Usually, when you start a new PM assignment (especially but not only in IT) you should organize all necessary accesses. I was advised once that a smart PM should complete such tedious tasks not within days but within hours. The key to this exercise is to show determination and “poke” around. The subtle matter is to show respect and maneuver through the peculiarities of the corporate world. It’s like finding your way in a park. Most of the paths are paved but those useful are usually not (but grass is not there anymore). In a more metaphorical sense, you just need to elevate yourself to have a helicopter or “watchtower” mode to observe your surroundings. Action is to poke around – reach out to people who poses relevant knowledge. Life does not operate on a “first in, first out” basis. By escalating you show your determination – “Volenti non-fit iniuria” (“to the willing, no injury is done”).

Deescalate like a bartender 

Fight or flight

Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher reminds us to carefully pick our battles: “I realized that I didn’t do any mistakes during the fight, I shouldn’t have fought at all in the first place”. Sometimes the best approach is to avoid direct confrontation, the way out is to deescalate. This is one of those extraordinary skills of bartenders. Maybe it’s not as common as in Hollywood movies but bartender must have the ability to calm drunk clientele. It’s necessary to be able to comfort troubled people or redirect their attention to avoid bar brawl. The bartender might listen carefully to concerns and acknowledge feelings without becoming defensive or escalating the situation further. They may also utilize empathy to comprehend the patrons’ perspective and offer alternative solutions or compromises that could ease the tension.

Turn off the heater if it’s too hot already

As a project manager, you might have similar challenges, you might notice that some areas of delivery are “heating up”, such as the tense situation with upper management. Escalation is like using artillery in the battle: you can destroy distant targets, but you are nearly immediately visible and vulnerable to counterattacks. It’s necessary to have self-awareness and know constraints while picking up “levers”. It’s no less important to learn how to deescalate things and how to seek an advantage during de-escalation. The proof of seniority is to reach out (leverage) someone’s power (that’s why we do power vs influence exercise), but also to calm down the situation and allow people “just do their things”. You should carefully pick up your fights and you need to define if you want to fight at all.

Connoisseurship of asymmetry – choose responsibly

Mental & physical throughput

Usage of a lever (advantage) requires noticing an asymmetry and this is seldom a straightforward assignment. Especially if you consider people and their abilities. In an industrial era, it was relatively simple to quantify someone’s throughput. Workers could deliver a certain number of matches; cotton bales or iron hammers every day. Humans have limited physical capabilities, and their differences are not very significant. A blue-collar worker couldn’t generate a dozen times more tangible things than the other person, regardless of how fast or strong they were. It’s quite different in terms of mental capabilities. Nowadays in the information economy knowledge workers’ output difference could be staggering. The case where the programmatic problem hasn’t been solved for few weeks, but then cracked by some other senior fellow within a few hours is common. Knowledge workers are not just mere cogs in a machine. They are great value creators where the value might be changed by an unfair “multiplier”. One software developer can produce 10-30 times more value than another one. But what if those top engineers could use yet another “unfair” advantage – AI? The disparity becomes even more massive. If you were already 30 times better than newbies, you could be 300 times better now by using AI. 

Susceptibility for asymmetry

Your goal is to have a proper susceptibility to spot the asymmetry and eventually to use all available multipliers (e.g., seniority, AI, new technologies). All bonuses are getting multiplied if you use them all at once. Promotions can be stacked and this is so unusual nowadays!

It’s also crucial to notice asymmetry with a negative impact (a tiny bug that stops a big factory, a security vulnerability that damages the credibility of a Software House, etc.). Self-aware PM ought to be a connoisseur of asymmetry, to be able to “smell”, and “taste” end eventually recommend different flavors of it.

A diagram of a diagram

Description automatically generated with low confidence
Figure 2. Venn Diagram of my project
Source: Own graphic

Enjoy responsibility and don’t get corrupted

It’s easy to get into manipulation especially while using the advantage of levers or asymmetry. It’s tempting to see exquisite results while projecting power. It’s not hard to get corrupted by the own or borrowed influence. This process of degradation is not easily spotted and seldom has as dire visible consequences as in fantasy books. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings saga turns into a caricature of a human being. All thanks to the usage of the [ring of] power for too long. He played with an artifact that was even too powerful and tempting for a wizard (Gandalf), who refused to use it at all. Handling domination tools is proof of maturity and maturity derives from responsibility. 

It’s good when power is accompanied by responsibility as it’s serving the right purpose. “Those who enjoy responsibility usually get it; those who merely like exercising authoring usually lose it“ – Malcolm Forbes.