Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Leverage points

Kelly, a commenter on an earlier post, pointed out Donella Meadows "Leverage Points: places to intervene in a system" paper. This is sort of a layperson's guide to "systems theory", but cast in a way that highlights the effectiveness of pushing on different points in a system. I find much to recommend this list:

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

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

10. Structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport network, population age structures)

9. Length of delays, relative to the rate of system changes

8. Strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the effect they are trying to correct against

7. Gain around driving positive feedback loops

6. Structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)

5. Rules of the system (such as incentives, punishment, constraints)

4. Power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure

3. Goal of the system

2. Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises out of

1. Power to transcend paradigms

The idea is that leverage points farther down the list (with smaller numbers) are more effective. Translating into my terms, I think leverage point 5 includes what I call "objectives" - the measurable things that people care about. People that have power to change the structure of the system - leverage point 4 - are either decision makers or meta-decision makers. Points 7 thru 11 are really different parts of what I do when modelling the consequences of decisions, expressed in a particular kind of modelling language. Leverage point 12 is what most people spend the most time arguing about - probably because it is the easiest thing to change.

So what's left? Leverage point 6 - information flows - is an interesting one because it forms the focus of discussions and failure to progress for the last 2 years on the Missouri River, IMHO. Who gets the information when, and then who acts on it (leverage point 4). All very unclear, and suggested clear pathways generate rapid, negative, strong (occasionally verging on violent!) reactions. The structured decision making framework places much emphasis on leverage point 5, but less on leverage points 4 and 6 - so maybe there is a lesson to be learned here.

Leverage point 3 - system goal - could be interpreted as fundamental objectives, but the writeup seems to imply that it is meant to be bigger than mere tactical or even strategic decisions, but bigger than that and you're really talking paradigms (leverage point 2). The most powerful leverage point is to achieve the power to transcend paradigms - which is in the territory of no thing / Buddhist enlightenment. Not that this is irrelevant to AM, but it is probably too difficult to realize frequently!

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