Deep Leverage points for dummies

Updated: Aug 10

Leverage points can intervene in systems to create transformations for sustainability. Read more to find out about them!

In the early 90s, Donella Meadows got invited to the negotiations of the North American free-trade agreement. She was to observe the process of building a new set of rules and laws to control US trade policy in the coming years as one of the country's premier system analysts. Meadows was surprised by the lack of knowledge of the lawmakers involved in the process after monitoring it for a few days. It's almost certainly an example of pushing the system in the wrong direction.

Meadows came up to the flip chart, tossed over a clean page, and jotted down nine places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness. Everyone in the room, including Meadows, looked at each other in amazement. She realised she had a lot of explaining to do, which she did some years later with her published essay on leverage points locations to act in a system, which was published in 1999.

The paper by Donella Meadows “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” seeks to clarify leverage points that can be found in every system and gives reasons as to which ones are suited for change and which ones are not. The example of the free trade agreement showed her that people frequently fail when it comes to either identifying possible points of leverage in a system or, even worse, finding a leverage point and trying to change it in the wrong direction, making the situation worse rather than better.

Here is an updated list of places to intervene in a system according toDonella Meadows:


(in increasing order of effectiveness)

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows (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. 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.

Leverage point number twelve refers to numbers, meaning all kinds of metrics that you can use to measure progress towards a goal; this is a way that you can use to affect people and ultimately the system's behaviour as a whole.

Buffers, or areas where things are temporarily kept, belong to leverage point number eleven. If buffers are too tiny, the system will clog, so increasing the size of such buffers is a good leverage point.

Stock and flow structures are the tenth leverage point. This is basically the roadway, pipelines, and/or electricity grids, and it's a very important component of the system. However, it's also one of the lowest because once it's there it's very difficult to change; so if you're designing a system, this is critical, but once it's there you have to work with what you've got.

The ninth leverage point is delays. If you have a system with very low delays, it may overreact to signals, but if you increase the delay, it may become more stable over time. In this context, it's useful to say that changing the rate at which the system changes is more effective than increasing the rate at which the system adapts to change level.

The eighth point is balancing feedback loops. When you notice the system is going too far in one direction, you can set up a feedback loop to inform it that it's going too far in that direction. It's just a question of getting a signal that pushes the system in a different path.

The seventh leverage point is reinforcing feedback loops. Because ring self-reinforcing feedback loops tend to exponentially increase and eventually collapse in a finite system, this is a more critical intervention point. The leverage point here is either to interrupt the same self-reinforcing feedback loop or to add balanced feedback loops.

Information flows are leverage point number six. This has to do with receiving the information that agents need in order to act effectively. It's very often the case that if a system behaves, it's because the right information isn't travelling to the right places. Information flow promotes accountability.

Rules are the fifth leverage point. With rules, you can set incentives, decide punishments, and enforce limitations over the system, and that is a really powerful way of affecting a system.

The fourth leverage point is self-organization, which refers to the rules that allow the system to evolve, adapt, and change its behaviour. A good example is democracy, which has its own cell-update system. Another example of self-organization is the structure of our genetic material and culture, and diversity is the most effective way of developing adaptability in that setting.

Goals are the third leverage point. Goals are important in how a system behaves, and choosing the wrong goals that don't fully reflect what you want can lead to perverse behaviour, so it's sometimes useful to step back and consider what the point of the game is. A good example would be whether we should measure progress in terms of GDP or happiness.

The second leverage point is paradigms. The unconscious framework that gives rise to systems, or the point of view that we employ to tackle challenges, is known as a paradigm. It's what gives rise to our objectives, so it's a powerful leverage point. It's not easy to change someone's paradigm, especially at a societal level, but if done correctly, it can happen quickly. One way to do this is to keep pointing out the failures and perversities of the current system, talk to open-minded people, and propose alternatives, and then perhaps a new paradigm can emerge.

The last and most effective leverage point is transcending systems, which is an almost spiritual attitude in which you can use and harness different paradigms and be somewhat unattached from them, using what is useful at the time and switching to something better whenever it's needed.

We must realize that high leverage intervention points are not always simple to implement; in fact, according to Donella Meadows, the greater the leverage point, the more the system will fight change. Overall, Donella Meadows demonstrates that it is impossible to change a system in a methodical way, especially when the system is complex, even though living in a system and modifying it for the better is more of an art than a science. She also claims that, in the end, mastery appears to be more about strategically, profoundly, and frantically letting go and dancing with the System than it is about pushing leverage points.

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