The 'right' places in a system where small, well-focused actions can produce significant, lasting improvements.
Using Systems Thinking to Solve Complex Problems by Alex Ryan
To find out where we want to intervene in the system, we need to find the leverage points. As Peter Senge describes in the Fifth Discipline, leverage points are 'levers', or the right places in a system where small, well-focused actions can produce significant, enduring improvements. These leverage points then become the focus of design and prototypes of a suite of coordinated, reinforcing interventions.
Concept of a high leverage point. Source: https://www.thwink.org/sustain/glossary/LeveragePoint.htm
Leverage points, like many ideas about complex systems, are simple concepts but very difficult to master. To find where they are in a system (and subsequently where to intervene) may seem intuitive to people who know a system well, but actually the interventions are often surprising or counterintuitive. In MaRS' work to improve job opportunities for disconnected youth, we knew the place to intervene was changing and optimizing where youth, employers, and employment services intersect. Three years on, we are still tweaking and testing interventions.
How hard do you push? Surprising and counterintuitive system behaviours.
Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems: A Primer is one of the more accessible and comprehensive guides to leverage points and other systems thinking concepts. In her book, she identified 12 types of leverage points. Here in increasing order of effectiveness:
12 Types of Leverage Points. Source: https://ecowe.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards). 11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows (such as reserves, inventory, debt limits). 10. The structure of material stocks and flows - physical systems and their nodes of intersection (such as transport networks, population age structures). 9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change. 8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against. 7. Reinforcing feedback loops - the gain around driving positive feedback loops. 6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information). 5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints). 4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure. 3. The goals of the system. 2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises. 1. The power to transcend paradigms.
After researching and identifying patterns in the system, you can use this list to help you look for and think about potential interventions.
In the Systems Thinking section we had mentioned that Think Jar collective has developed an approach for a group to identify leverage points starting with the Iceberg Model followed by Z.I.P. Analysis. You can find them here, along with general instructions (thanks to Ben Weinlick & Jaime Calayo).
Peter Senge suggests a different approach to identifying leverage points. In his book The Fifth Discipline, he describes how systems can be seen as being made up of patterns of behaviour. These patterns can be generalized into 12 recurring patterns, or system dynamics archetypes. Each of these system dynamics archetypes have suggested responses. Identifying the system dynamics archetypes enables identification of the appropriate leverage points and interventions.
An overview of System Dynamics Archetypes. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SD_Archetypes.png