Kumu Blog

Tools and practices for tackling complex systems.

The mythical leverage point

In a way, leverage points are the unicorn of the systems community. Often talked about yet rarely spotted, it's easy to fall into the trap of expecting to find these almost magical ways of shifting a system. But we do ourselves a disservice when we talk about leverage points in a way that makes them feel easy, or requiring only little effort.

What is a leverage point?

Systemswiki.org describes leverage points as:

Points where a small amount of effort, or change, will produce a large change in the behavior of the system.

Unfortunately this definition sets us up to expect to find easy ways to change complex systems. In reality this is rarely the case.

While most practitioners wouldn't describe leverage points as "easy", the problem lies in how we introduce the idea of leverage to others, setting them up for very different expectations. Rather than a leverage point being a place where small effort leads to large changes, we should describe leverage points as the few places where we have any shot of shifting the system.

If there aren't any magical levers for us to pull, how do we decide where to intervene?

Identifying leverage points

Donella Meadows' Places to Intervene in a System is arguably the most popular work on how to spot leverage points, laying out twelve places to intervene ordered by effectiveness or "leverage". We've included examples alongside each one to give you a better sense of what each represents:

  1. The power to transcend paradigms. Example: Mastering the art of engaging multiple perspectives and mapping systems; profoundly and madly letting go of our beliefs and notions of how the world should work.
  2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises. Example: Modeling a system and seeing it in a new way; shifting a country's aspiration from gross domestic product (GDP) to gross national happiness (GNH).
  3. The goals of the system. Example: Setting a goal of landing on the moon before any other country; aligning around shared goals for a system over individual or siloed outcomes.
  4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure. Example: Embracing a collective impact model for a local community effort; the use of flat, non-hierarchical org structures.
  5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints). Example: Imposing strict rules on water usage and charging for overages; changing campaign finance laws on who can donate and how much.
  6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information). Example: Creating a "nudge" to reduce energy usage by connecting households to information about their usage; opening access to government data to increase accountability.
  7. The gain around driving reinforcing feedback loops. Reducing the birth rate; lowering the influence of the wealthy on the political system (reducing the gain of reinforcing feedback loops gives the balancing loops time to work their magic).
  8. The strength of balancing feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against. Example: Increasing the amount of time set aside for leisure, exercise and family; building an informed and engaged civic population.
  9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change. Example: Time to build new housing relative to changes in demand; reducing information delays in the stock market (warning: delays are not often easily changeable, hence their low ranking).
  10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures). Example: Building new roads or removing old ones; adding high speed rail between Los Angeles and the Bay Area (changes can be very high leverage, but are incredibly difficult to enact - the leverage is in proper initial design).
  11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows. Example: Altering the amount of inventory a business holds on hand; increasing the size of water reservoirs or the size of the snowpack (you can see some buffers are very hard to change).
  12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards). Example: Raising (or lowering) the minimum wage; hiring or firing individual people when it's a systemic issue.

The essence of Donella's list is that if we're only tinkering with the leverage points in #7-12, we're fooling ourselves if we expect to see a substantial shift in the system.

Engaging leverage points

Once you've identified a potential list of places to intervene, how do you decide which ones to pursue? We'll tell you in part two of this article which we'll release next week. Sign up for our newsletter so you don't miss it!

A word of warning

None of this is easy work and it's hard to know whether you're even pushing in the right direction, but one of the surest signs you're on the right path is the amount of resistance you experience against your efforts...

The higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist changing it — that’s why societies have to rub out truly enlightened beings. - Donella Meadows

Join the conversation! What tools, frameworks, or questions do you use to spot leverage in a complex system? Add a comment below.

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