Here is a fascinating white paper on changing systems written ten years ago by the late Donella Meadows, founder of the Sustainability Institute. In fewer than 20 pages, she describes twelve ways to intervene in a system and – as a bonus – ranks them in terms of effectiveness.
The Sustainability Institute applies system dynamics to critical issues of human survival — poverty, population growth, ecological degradation. Meadows writes with these big issues in mind and frames many of the leverage points in large scale economic terms but it does not take much effort to translate her insights and apply them to smaller systems, like local communities or organizations.
Most fascinating is this: as her leverage points increase in effectiveness, they progress in character from economic to political to philosophical to spiritual. The least effective leverage point in her estimation is adjusting parameters, constants or numbers – minimums, maximums, how much money, how many people, how much of something is put into or taken out of a system. But, she says, this is where most of us direct “probably 90–no 95–no 99 percent of our attention.” People care about numbers and will fight for them and about them. In her observation, though, they rarely change a system in significant ways.
The most effective leverage point for changing a system, according to Meadows, is the power to transcend paradigms – a nearly mystical feat that, frankly, is a little frightening to contemplate. Easier to grasp and apply are her 5th and 6th most effective leverage points: the structure of information flow and the rules of the system. She uses the grand example of what happened to the USSR when Mikhail Gorbachev opened information flows (glasnost) and changed the economic rules (perestroika).
So what do the information flows and the rules look like in your organization or the system you are trying to change?