Leverage Points

Changing the System Part II


“The definition of lunacy,” Betalden adds, “is to keep doing what you’ve always done and expect different results.”

Now that we understand ‘system,’ how can we change the structure of the economic system to produce more of what we want, economic equality, and less of that which is undesirable, inequality?

One techniques to help understand how to change a system’s structure involves applying interventions at key leverage points, places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in behavior.  In “Thinking in Systems,” Donella Meadows enumerates, in ascending order, 12 key leverage points in terms of effect on the system.  Here are the top 6:

6.  Information flow – the structure of who does and does not have access to information.

Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction.   Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention.  It’s important that the missing feedback be restored to the right place and in compelling form.   There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions.   An example is the rapid draining of the Ogallala Aquifir, an underground pool of fresh water that stretches from Northern Texas to Wyoming.  Closely related is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, originally planned to pass thru areas of the Ogallala Aquifir, that is supposed to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the oil refineries on the Gulf Coast of the US.

5.  Rules – incentives, punishments, constraints

The rules of the system define its scope, its boundaries, its degrees of freedom.  Constitutions are the strongest examples of social rules.  Laws, punishments, incentives and informal social arrangements are progressively weaker rules.  Rules are high leverage points.  Power over rules is real power.  If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and who has the power over them.

4.  Self-organization – the power to add, change, evolve system structure

The power of self-organization (emergence) seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous, heaven sent.   Self-organization is basically a matter of an evolutionary raw material – a highly variable stock of information from which to select possible patterns – and a means for experimentation, for selecting and testing new patterns.  The intervention point here is obvious, but unpopular.  Encouraging variability and experimentation and diversity means “losing control.”  Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability.   It reqires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder.  These conditions that encourage self-organization often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures.  As a consequence, education systems may restrict the creative powers of children instead of stimulating those powers.  Economic policies may lean toward supporting established, powerful enterprises rather than upstart, new ones.  And many governments prefer their people not to be too self-organizing.

3.  Goals – the goal or purpose of a system

“Right there, the diversity-destroying consequence of the push for control demonstrates why the goal of a system is a leverage point superior to the self-organizing ability of a system.  If the goal is to bring more and more of the world under the control of one particular central planning system (Wal-Mart), then everything further down the list, physical stocks and flows, feedback loops, information flows, even self-organizing behavior, will be twisted to conform to that goal…

“What is the point of the game?  To grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers, regulators) more and more under the control of the corporation so that its operations becomes ever more shielded from uncertainty…to engulf everything…It’s the goal of cancer, too…

“That’s what Ronald Reagan did, and we watched it happen.  Not long before he came into office, a president could say “Ask not what government can do for you, ask what you can do for the government,” and no one even laughed.  Reagan said over and over, the goal is not to get the people to help the government and not to get government to help people, but to get government off our backs.  One can argue, and I would, that larger system changes and the rise of corporate power over government let him get away with that.  But the thoroughness with which the public discourse is the United States and even the world has been changed since Ronald Reagan is testimony to the high leverage of articulating, meaning, repeating, standing up for, insisting upon, new system goals.” – Donella Meadows

2.  Paradigms – the mind-set out of which the system – its goals, structures, rules, delays, parameters – arises

Paradigms are the sources of systems.  From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.  You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not second-to-highest.  But there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change.  In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond.  All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.

So how do you change paradigms?  Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that:

“You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm.  You keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new one.  You insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power.  You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open minded.” – Thomas Kuhn

1.  Transcending paradigms

“There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm.  That is to keep oneself unattached to the area of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that every paradigm, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.” – Donella Meadows


About Freedom to...

Consultant helping people and employers in health care, education and government to see and understand how their organization works and how to change them to improve performance.
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