So you want to change the world (or some part of it)? According to Donella (Dana) Meadows, you can be a more effective change agent if you choose the right place to intervene. She goes on to say that most people pick the wrong places to intervene, which makes it hard or impossible to succeed.
We knew Dana Meadows not only as an thought leader, but also as a farmer. She loved working on the land and was at home with animals. Once on a horse and buggy ride, our horse shied vigorously at a mailbox. Where others might have been scared, Dana just laughed and laughed. Despite her fame, part of her was just a down-to-earth farmer. She was also one of the pioneers in using systems thinking to address big environmental and social challenges.
Even when Dana knew the direction in which a system needed to change, she often found herself struggling to change it. However, over the years of both frustration and success, she became wise about what works and what doesn't when changing large systems. She came to believe that most of the things people do to change systems are either ineffective or worse, effective, but in the wrong direction. She distilled her learning in the classic article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.
In Leverage Points Dana lists and then explains the relative usefulness of 12 different ways of changing a system. Like a David Letterman Top 10 list, she goes through her list backwards, starting with the least likely to be effective and ending with the most. This lets her show why the leverage points most people start with are unlikely to work and why intervening in other ways works better.
Here is her list of “Places to Intervene in a System” (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 what kinds of 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 paradigms out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises
1. The power to transcend paradigms
If you, like me, yearn to be a more effective change agent, I suggest checking out Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Dana gives real examples of interesting change projects, the underlying systems which needed to be changed and where effective leverage could be found. She explains each of the list's intervention types and why she found some types more likely to be effective than working directly on the variable you want to change. I reread this paper from time to time and I always learn something new.