“Give me a lever long enough … and I shall move the world” – Archimedes
Every organization, company or “system” can be changed in only certain ways. These are the leverage points – the places where change is possible. (The term “leverage” is originally taken from mechanical engineering and physics.) The 12 universal Leverage Points for changing any system, according to Dana Meadows are (the higher the number in the list, the more effective):
- Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
- The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows (i.e.
- The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures)
- The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change
- The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against
- The gain around driving positive feedback loops
- The structure of information flows (who does and does not have acces to what kinds of information)
- The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, rewards, constraints)
- The power to add, change, evolve or self-organize system structure
- The goals of the system
- The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises
- The power to transcend paradigms
Donella “Dana” Meadows is credited for building a gateway into the world of systems thinking that any lay person could trod and be inspired by. Her book “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” is one of the most important, and surprisingly delightful books that have shaped my career and personal life. I laughed out loud and wrote volumes in the margins of this book. As a result, I bother less with anecdotal experiences, and I seek to find leverage points and system dynamics to inform myself and lead change.
To cut through some of the systems jargon, here are 3 examples of these leverage points, in Meadows’ own words:
(1) Constants, parameters, numbers: “consider the national debt. It’s a negative bathtub, a money hole. The annual rate at which it sinks is called the deficit. Tax income makes it rise, government expenditures make it fall. Congress and the President spend more of the time arguing about the many, many parameters that open and close faucets and spending drains … but, despite all the fireworks, and no matter which party is in charge, the money hole keeps getting deeper, just at different rates”
(6) The gain around driving positive feedback loops: “A positive feedback loop is self-reinforcing. The more it works, the more it gains power to work some more. The more people catch the flu, the more they infect other people … the more money you have in the bank, the more interest you earn, the more money you have in the bank.”
And one more:
(10) The goals of the system: “…If the goal is to bring more and more of the world under control of one particular central planning system (the empire of Genghis Khan … Walmart … whatever), then everything further down the list, physical stocks and flows, feedback loops, information flows … will be twisted to conform to that goal”
Despite the value I place on “Thinking in Systems” and her leverage points, Meadows is probably best known for her work with the Club of Rome to publish the report Limits to Growth in 1972. It aimed to model and predict what would happen if economic and population growth continued as they had been – leading to a Malthusian Trap and sudden population decline.
Humanity is headed for a trap? How could this be? To the Club of Rome, it was this simple: Every system can only grow so large as its limiting factor. In the case of human population growth, relying on finite planetary resources, there are many limiting factors that could cause massive decline of global health and well being (think: clean water, air, healthy soil, cheap fossil fuel energy, etc.) The figure below shows what the Club of Rome model predicted for the 21st century and the trajectory of humanity and how close they were to modeling the true nature of our global trends of population growth and resource decline:
Whether you are into environmental and societal trends, or just want to make your workplace or school function better, understanding the work of Dana Meadows will help you on your way forward. Check out “Thinking in Systems“. You won’t regret it.
I’ll end with one of my favorite Dana Meadows quotes, from the Donella Meadows Institute website:
“Speak the truth. Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power. Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence. All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as enough.”