Friday, November 17, 2006

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

21-pg paper (PDF) published in 1999 by the late Donella Meadows, former director of the Sustainability Institute. (via kottke)

Applies to countries, cities, corporations, etc.

Places to intervene in a system
(in increasing order of effectiveness, i.e., read it like a top 10 chart; the good stuff is at the bottom)
  • Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)
  • Sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows
  • Structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures)
  • Lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change
  • Strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against
  • The gain around driving positive feedback loops
  • Structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)
  • Rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints)
  • Power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure
  • Goals of the system
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system - it's goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters - arises
  • The power to transcend paradigms
And, most strikingly, her closing words of wisdom: "The higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist changing it - that's why societies tend to rub out truly enlightened beings. ... Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are ... You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go."

The details, as always, are in the reading. Go read the paper.

File under: systems thinking, hacking the system, change management