Leverage points: How to assess and apply them for greater project success


Randall L. Englund, Executive Consultant

Englund Project Management Consultancy

BUCERO PM Consulting

Case studies help to identify leverage points that often make the difference between greater project success and failure. In this paper, witness the application of assessment tools, culled from experiences, which demonstrate how to get support from stakeholders. Identify crucial skills to achieve desired results based upon proven practices from experienced practitioners. These include an attitude of belief, speaking truth to power, negotiating and selling, and applying leverage points to work through difficult encounters.


Project, program, and portfolio management are people intensive activities, subject to personalities, differing agendas, and misunderstandings. Successful managers are those who, while not immune from these challenges, correctly assess and determine how to navigate political minefields. Personal case studies, largely drawn from high-tech projects, along with examples from other people and industries, provide a proven means, first to accept that these challenges will arise, and second to work through them and achieve desired outcomes.

Leverage points are activities within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. This idea is embedded in legend: the silver bullet, the trim tab, the miracle cure, the secret passage, the magic password, the single hero who turns the tide of history, the nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles. We want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them. Leverage points are points of power (Meadows, 1999).

An example in the physical world: Trim tabs are small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft, used to control the trim of the controls—to counteract hydro- or aerodynamic forces and stabilize the boat or aircraft in a particular desired attitude without the need for the operator to constantly apply a control force. This is done by adjusting the angle of the tab relative to the larger surface. This serves to reduce the work of the engine by reducing the amount of manual control necessary, as well as provide for greater efficiency by keeping the ship in the ideal orientation for the conditions (Wikipedia.org, n.d.).

What is the equivalent trim tab [leverage points] in the world of people and relationships? The answer is L2M2: leadership, learning, means, and motivation.

Examples where these “forces” apply include:

  • Speaking truth to power;
  • Getting past resistance to achieve results;
  • Working through difficult encounters;
  • Applying controlled anger;
  • Negotiating with reluctant stakeholders;
  • “Selling” and implementing a new process;
  • Overcoming resistance.

The objectives in this paper are to:

  • Identify leverage points and assessment tools applicable to project, program, and portfolio management;
  • Develop skills to assess people and situations and plan appropriate responses, based upon proven best practices;
  • Improve success rates through application of these skills.

Challenges present themselves on every project and program. An attitude of acceptance is required to get past initial paralysis and/or frustration, then to assess, design, and apply an action plan. Foremost, a belief in the ability to prevail is required. An individual's positive attitude that today is a good day (Bucero, 2010), and tomorrow will be even better provides the means to embrace and implement the leverage points we discuss.

Case Number One

I (Englund) had the privilege or working with a very talented project manager and mentor. From her I learned about speaking truth to power, how an individual can make a big difference across an organization when leveraging personal and process skills. She demonstrated each of the steps in Exhibit 1.

Process and Assessment Tool for Speaking Truth to Power

Exhibit 1: Process and Assessment Tool for Speaking Truth to Power

This project manager at a high-tech company sensed a big problem. There was no process in place to manage hundreds of technical issues that had been identified within a newly developed computer architecture . . . and products were now being developed based upon this problem-laden architecture. Toni knew the news was bad and getting worse, but she had no more authority than anyone else to do anything about those issues. The complexity of the situation was different than anything else this organization had experienced before. All variables were changing: markets, products, technology, people, organization, and size. No one person was directly in charge. No one was putting in the effort to correct what looked like a massive problem.

However, there was something different about this person—she was willing to speak truth to power. Project leaders are closest to the action in most organizations. While that makes them knowledgeable about what is going on and what should be done to achieve project success, unfortunately, they often do not possess the resources, political clout, or approval to do those things. And the people in power are not always open to hearing the truth. This happens for any number of reasons, such as pressure from shareholders, a drive to meet an out-of-alignment measurement system, turf battles, or insufficient knowledge about the project management process. Even worse, the messenger may get proverbially “shot” for delivering the “truth” (bad news) to those in “power”—telling the truth can have negative consequences to the teller.

Toni took the initiative to define the truth. The issues reflected big gaps, errors, or undefined paths in the new computer architecture, issues so significant that new product development was being delayed in multiple areas. Several different product lines would be built upon this platform. If the issues were not resolved rationally, immediate design decisions would have to be made on multiple projects that might compromise or severely limit future functionality options in the products being developed. Architects argued for the purity and integrity of the architecture. Implementers wanted pragmatic solutions that leveraged the work completed to date. The problem was not getting solved—concrete closure actions were not being taken. The congenial but functionally separated environment was potentially “toxic” for anyone stepping up to take charge.

Toni was one among dozens of project managers depending upon the new architecture. Overall, she took it upon herself to cause action. She created a compelling picture of why action was required, what needed to be done, how to resolve the issues, and what the results would be. Here are the steps she took:

  1. She identified the functional managers whose businesses were impacted by the issues and asked them to get together for a discussion. These upper managers were clearly frustrated by the issues and concerned about getting their projects completed on time. They had no spare resources to resolve issues that they believed other people should be working on. Toni's personal invitation to attend a meeting with peer managers to address important and urgent issues or else be stuck with what others decided, made it compelling for them to show up at the meeting.
  2. To deliver the truth, she put together a presentation that clearly stated the nature of the issues and catastrophic impact on all business areas. In the meeting with research and development (R&D) managers from across the organization who were responsible for developing various pieces of the computer platform, she articulated the issues with amazing alacrity. Yet she did not overwhelm them with details—they knew enough to fill in the blanks with the pictures she presented. The consequences of inaction were delays in time to market, duplication and rework of effort, frustrated engineers, high costs, bad publicity, and unfavorable attention from unhappy executives. She spoke a language they all understood extremely well.
  3. In this presentation, she proposed that each business ante up key engineers to meet in study groups that would research the options for resolving the architectural issues and propose solutions. People in all project areas would then need to review the proposals and agree to adopt them. This work would have to take place concurrently with the development efforts underway.

(Note: Although not actually required in this case, many times it takes bringing in a trusted outsider, such as somebody in another organization who solved a similar problem, or a consultant, to convince people that such drastic action is required.)

What made Toni able to take on such a strong role in a very sensitive situation? Her actions were driven by choosing to exercise personal strengths—her leverage points. Her passion and belief in a very different future state being possible provided courage and energy to take on this difficult task. And she used savvy and sensitive communications skills to be credible, trusted, and ultimately listened to:

  • Through words and actions she made it clear that her sole motivation was accountability for success of the program. It was clear that she had no hidden agenda or desire for personal gain—just relief from the frustration she was experiencing. Her outspoken manner diffused any possible resistance by making it clear, through her choice of words upfront and throughout, that she was not after personal glory or power plays but just wanted to make the program successful. None of this was a surprise to the attendees because she had conducted one-on-one discussions with each manager in advance of the meeting.
  • She pointed out the pain that could be felt by each person. She had the ability to design a process that could lead to changes, and she linked the pain and change efforts directly to needs of the business.
  • By reflecting and drawing upon previous experiences, she articulated the current reality and defined the steps needed for the change. Fortunately, she had completed a number of previous projects quite successfully. She was technically competent and could understand the difficult nature of the problems being encountered. Her carefully chosen words addressed different perspectives; that is, she talked broad picture with upper managers and technical issues with engineers. She consistently demonstrated the values, beliefs, and contribution that this effort would bring to the organization.
  • She asked for their support. The goal of the meeting was to get explicit commitment from all attendees that they and their organizations would participate in this program. This was not just another meeting to talk about the issues; it was a call to action.

Toni's thorough plan, reinforced by inputs from other people around the organization, convinced this council of upper managers to get on board as a guiding coalition. The plan first requested these managers to set constraints and define priorities. It then described how cross-organizational teams of engineers would be assigned full time to specific modules or areas within the architecture. Approval would come from all other teams reviewing, commenting, and voting on proposals. Fears subsided as concerns about priorities, content, process, oversight, approvals, and implementation were addressed.

In the end, they asked Toni to lead the new program. Believing in the program, she agreed to get it going. She became the leader, the guiding vision, and the workhorse. She also planned from the beginning to go “out of business” as a revolutionary. Toni went to the program management office and requested a program manager. The initial conversation with Toni revealed many negative expressions, but the program manager had a sense to persevere and later came to realize the negativity came only out of Toni's frustration with the current realities. The program manager came on board and gradually took over to coordinate the massive cross-organizational efforts to execute this plan. After successfully completing the tumultuous first phase, she guided the program team through a retrospective analysis, saw that progress was proceeding on the right path, went back to managing her own project full time, and got promoted. She continued taking on new development efforts within the company.

Toni's impact extended beyond that critical program. The program team became quite competent in the new process that it had invented and then refined how to identify and resolve architectural issues. It was significant to observe how the management anxiety initially present around the complexity and far-reaching nature of the “truth” was upsetting to those in “power,” gradually subsided, and mostly disappeared over the course of the program. Credit goes not only to the engineers doing the work but also to the program management approach that was applied. All this became possible because one person was willing to risk her career and speak up. She knew how to apply leverage points. Resolving those architectural issues was at the heart of the huge success subsequently enjoyed by the company in the computer business. Management supported a celebration to recognize the achievements of the many who were initiated by the power of one.

Later I (Englund), as the program manager, sought out this person as a mentor because I was so impressed by her abilities to get things done within a convoluted organization. I wanted to know how she managed to exercise voice with power and shortcut a path to cultural distortion (Graham & Englund, 2004). One question was about improving judgment. She suggested observing judgmental situations by:

  • Making my own call as difficult decisions came up;
  • Observing how those in power make the same calls;
  • Comparing their actions to mine as a way of learning to make better decisions from the masters;
  • Seeking to understand their thought processes;
  • Probing into the reasons they act as they do.

Her feedback on this and other topics was invaluable and long lasting. I learned that my thought processes in any difficult situation can be productive, depending on my attitude and ability to leverage skills and simple, but effective, process steps. Later in a different job at corporate, I was able to reciprocate and provide her with advice on a project submittal.

Key Takeaways:

  • Act from personal strengths, such as expert, visionary, or process owner.
  • Develop a clear, convincing, and compelling message and make it visible to others.
  • Use passion that comes from deep values and beliefs about the work (if these are not present, then find a different program to work on).
  • Be accountable for the success of the organization and ask others to do the same.
  • Get explicit commitments from people to support the goals of the program; then they are more likely to follow through.
  • Take action, first to articulate the needs, then to help others understand the change, and finally to get the job done, following a plan.
  • Tap the energy that comes from the courage of convictions . . . and from the preparation steps outlined above.

Case Number Two

While working in a field service office, I (Englund) observed how a variety of firefighting activities seemed to repeat themselves: Sales made commitments to customers and did not inform service; installations began before the site was ready or all equipment was on site; “rough-in” drawings were incorrect for the equipment ordered, and so forth. Being a process-oriented person, I made a vow to keep these “fires” from occurring again. I also knew that I had reached a plateau in my development at the job and was ready for a change.

So I took the initiative to propose a revised process and structure to the district service manager. Essentially this became known as a “project office.” I would review all orders and drawings before they were finalized. I would also participate in presales calls, accompanying sales reps on customer visits. In advance of installation startups, I would check each site and then monitor process as projects progressed.

It was important to sell and get commitment to this process from both the sales and service managers before it was implemented. That took a fair amount of negotiating on what steps should be approached and how to implement them. Shortly into implementation, an encounter between me and the sales manager (SM) went something like this:

SM: “Randy, I've been getting complaints from sales reps about your new process that introduces additional steps before quotations may be prepared.”

Me: “You're darn right! We've been struggling with missteps so much that we need these reviews,” was my reply in an emotional outburst.

A couple of weeks later came this discussion with the district manager (DM):

DM: “Randy, the sales manager mentioned an encounter with you in the back room awhile back.”

Me (thinking): “Oh no, I'm going to get reprimanded for my outburst.”

DM: “The sales manager was impressed by your passion and commitment to the new process.”

Me (thinking): “Wow, there really is a time and place to express controlled anger!”

I had captured the attention of the sales manager, indicating how important this new process was. My dedication was clear. Over time, all service metrics vastly improved: installation times shortened, profit increased, service technician efficiency rose, and customers were happier. Even sales reps came to appreciate how much value was added by involving the project manager much earlier in the process. I am glad that I persevered in the face of resistance. I believed in what I was doing and made it happen.

Key Takeaways:

  • Identify a problem that is important for the business.
  • Align a solution for the problem with personal skills and abilities that can easily be applied.
  • Take the initiative to leverage skills that solve problems.
  • Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate . . .
  • Consider controlled anger as necessary when unwarranted resistance arise.
  • Get measureable results.

Case Number Three

I (Bucero) was in charge of organizing a sponsorship training workshop in Madrid, Spain. I prepared all the material, handouts, logistics, and so on, and I called 15 managers for a meeting. I failed on the first try, so I talked to my manager, and I told her, “I believe we need to change our strategy in organizing this workshop. I've been working for this organization for 14 years, and they know me too well. They know my passion for project management, but they are not buying my ideas and suggestions about sponsorship.”

My manager asked, “What do you propose, Alfonso?” “Well, I know that there is a colleague in Germany who is able to deliver that training in English. Why not invite him to come to our office in Spain and deliver the sponsorship training for us instead of me trying to deliver it by myself?”

Initially my manager was hesitant about my idea, saying that I was the Program Management Office (PMO) Manager, and I would be the ideal person to do it. However, I insisted over several days (using my persistence) and got her buy-in (using my patience and passion). My manager contacted the manager of my colleague who worked in Germany at the Frankfurt HP Office. They got an agreement about organizing and delivering the training together. And finally the colleague came to Spain.

The colleague arrived a couple of days before the training would be delivered, so we had some time to work together (type of audience, the messages to get across, logistics), and he suggested inviting our Spanish general manager to that meeting. I asked my manager to invite the general manager, and she did it successfully.

We requested that all attendees do some homework the day before the meeting. We asked them to write down the following data regarding the projects they were sponsoring:

  • Project name;
  • Project manager;
  • Project budget;
  • Project status;
  • Major risks;
  • Number of times every manager visited the customer during the project.

Those data were collected before the meeting and then showed to the attendees during the meeting. My colleague (the workshop leader) started with a sponsorship introduction, customer project lifecycle review, and some other material. Then he showed the collected data in front of the general manager.

Curiously, more than 75% of the business unit managers who attended that meeting did not have any idea about most of the project data requested. When the workshop leader asked them why, they answered that there was nothing in it for them. They argued that it was a project manager's responsibility.

The general manager attending that workshop stood up and said, “I totally disagree; you are responsible for your business, so you need to get as much information as possible about the projects managed by the professionals in your business units. Sorry about that, but you are not managing properly. Please work with your project managers and ask them how you may help them. Try to find out more about your customer's needs, issues, and problems, and that way more and more projects can be generated.”

It was very smart of my colleague to invite the general manager to the session because my colleague gained the general manager's commitment regarding the sponsorship need. The general manager stayed through the whole meeting and asked all managers to prepare an action plan regarding sponsorship. The general manager bought the idea and understood the need. See Englund and Bucero (2006) for additional steps about developing project sponsorship.

Key Takeaways:

  • Using an external messenger is helpful in many situation. Some managers kill the local messenger before understanding the content of the message.
  • Align a solution—and leverage points—for the problem with personal skills and abilities that can easily be applied.
  • Take the initiative and use your organizational resources. Sometimes colleagues speaking other language than yours may be beneficial.
  • Sell the idea to your manager, using your passion, persistence, and patience to get his or her buy-in.
  • Take the risk it may be converted into an opportunity if you use your intelligence and courage.

Identification of Leverage Points

These case studies provide examples of leverage points in action. Here is both an organic metaphor and summary statement for identifying leverage points in the project, program, and portfolio management environment:

A dragonfly is the only insect that can move in any direction when its four wings work in concert. It moves with simplicity, effectiveness, power, elegance, and grace, seeing 360 degrees around it. It is a symbol of change in perspective and self-realization.

Aaker and Smith (2010) use this organic metaphor to identify powered ways to drive change, especially in social media. Their book The Dragonfly Effect is an excellent source of ideas, models, and examples. Although they focus primarily on social changes via social media, the model of focus, grab attention, engage, and take action are supremely applicable to business change as brain food and leverage points for effective action in any endeavor.

The Dragonfly Effect

Exhibit 2: The Dragonfly Effect

As a project management consultant, author, and trainer, I (Englund) have long counseled people to use an organic approach to the implementation of projects—look to nature for metaphors and solutions. In The Complete Project Manager's Toolkit (2012), my coauthor and I point to the dragonfly as an apt symbol for changes in perspective and self-realization. We urge people to use storytelling as a leverage point to influence others, and that is exactly what the authors of The Dragonfly Effect convey to readers.

In the world of people and relationships, a simple model of key leverage points—referred to above as L2M2—may perhaps be sufficient as a recipe for greater project success (see Exhibit 3). All four factors are necessary for this recipe to succeed:

  • Leadership is a well-articulated communication from the organization of what kind of new behavior is required and why it is required, along with a road map of the change that will take place over time.
  • Learning is the process of supplying the knowledge and skill necessary for individuals to carry out new behaviors. It includes learning support from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®Guide) – Fifth Edition, project leadership, and business skills, and the like. In the case of portfolio management it includes role-based knowledge and skill for all aspects of the process. This starts with project selection and proceeds to the end of the project outcome lifecycle.
  • Means are all the resources necessary to carry out the behaviors, including tools, organizational policies and structures, and time. For portfolio management this includes, but is not limited to, a prioritization and selection process, an implementation and update process, and a supportive organization design, software-based tracking tools, and information systems.
  • Motivation is the formal and informal system of incentives and consequences that reinforce new behaviors. These are differentiated by role so that the required role-based behaviors are supported in all parts of the organization.

To implement these factors, a PMO often provides the missing link and leverage, between what upper managers want and how individuals or teams do it (Englund, Graham & Dinsmore, 2003). Behavior begins to change when all four factors work in concert. Without leadership, people will not know how to apply their new knowledge and skill in concert with business strategic and tactical objectives. Without learning, people may know what they are supposed to do from leadership, but not know how to do it. Without means, people may know what to do and how to do it, but not have the tools and resources to carry it out. Without motivation, people may know what leaders want, know how to do it, and have the resources to carry it out, but simply not bother to do it. PMO officers are well advised to supply and apply or ensure these factors are implemented.

The L2M2 Recipe for Success

Exhibit 3: The L2M2 Recipe for Success


In this paper, we identify key points and processes that are common leverage points in all the examples; they are also applicable in other situations. It is important to focus on people, relationships, values, and skills. Modify an approach depending on the situation, always knowing there are patterns in how nature and people respond. Tap leverage points in those patterns as a means toward greater project success. Changing a mindset to embrace change or a new approach may perhaps be the simplest and most powerful leverage point for an individual to implement. Apply a key phrase: “I can think differently about this.”

Donella Meadows (1999) provides an interesting perspective on leverage points:

Missing feedback is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure. . . . There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions. That's why there are so many missing feedback loops—and why this kind of leverage point is so often popular with the masses, unpopular with the powers that be, and effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen (or go around them, and make it happen anyway).

There's nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing. Whole societies are another matter—they resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist anything else.

So how do you change paradigms? . . . you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep coming yourself, and loudly and with assurance from the new one . . . you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

Today is a good day to change paradigms—our thinking.

Aaker, J. & Smith, A. (2010). The dragonfly effect: Quick, effective, and powerful ways to use social media to drive social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bucero, A. (2010). Today is a good day! Attitudes for achieving project success. Oshawa, ON, CA: Multimedia Publications, Inc.

Englund, R., Graham, R., & Dinsmore, P. (2003). Creating the project office: A manager's guide to leading organizational change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Englund, R. & Bucero, A. (2006). Project sponsorship: Achieving management commitment for project success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Englund, R. & Bucero, A. (2012). The complete project manager: Integrating people, organizational, and technical skills. Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press.

Englund, R. & Bucero, A. (2012). The complete project manager's toolkit. Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press.

Graham, R. & Englund, R. (2004). Creating an environment for successful projects: Second edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Meadows, Donella (1999). Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Norwich, VT: Donella Meadows Institute. Retrieved from http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

Project Management Institute (2012). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, Pa: Author.

Trim tab. In Wikipedia.org (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trim_tab

© 2014, Randall L Englund and Alfonso Bucero
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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