Leverage Points

Updated: Aug 18

Leverage Points

A leverage point is a place within a system where small changes can have large effects. The lower we go in the iceberg, the more leverage we have for transforming the system. For example, changing structures and influencing mental models has a broader, more far-reaching effect than reacting in the moment and firefighting discrete events. Thus the only real way to find high leverage points is to first find the root causes.

The iceberg metaphor helps to illustrate that if we somehow altered the event on top without finding a solution to the cause, the buoyancy of the ice underneath would simply push up to recreate the tip again. As such only the most superficial of issues can be resolved at this higher level. Symptomatic responses attempt to push on the system at low leverage points to resolve immediate causes. This works on easy problems because on easy problems the forces arising from root causes are small enough to be overcome by pushing on low leverage points. Systems change requires affecting the organization at high leverage points to resolve root causes. This approach is required on difficult problems since problem solvers can exert only limited amounts of force on a large system. If that force is applied at low instead of high leverage points, it will be overcome by the forces of the innate dynamics of the system that arise from the root causes.

Points of Intervention

Events & Reaction: If we only look at events, the best we can do is react. Something happens, and we fix it. This is typically our response the first time an event occurs. We do not shift our thinking in any way; we just act swiftly to fix the immediate problem using pre-existing solutions that have worked in the past. For some superficial events, this approach can work well, but will clearly fail if an issue is more systemic as we are merely dealing with the symptoms of the problem.[1]

Pattern & Anticipation: When we start to notice a pattern of those events, we have more options. We can anticipate what is going to happen, and we can plan for it. When we start noticing patterns, we can begin to consider what is causing the same events to happen over and over again.

Structure & Design: When we start to look at the underlying structures, we begin to see where we can change what is happening. We are no longer at the mercy of the system. We can begin to identify the thinking and the mental models that are resulting in those structures taking the form they do.

Mental Model & Transform: Changing the model that an organization uses is the highest leverage point, it can lead to real transformation, with the possibility to totally restructure the system and overcome even the greatest of challenges.

It is possible that events can change behavior, which changes elements which change relations, function, and models, but it is not often, a billion events may pass without altering the system much. In contrast, if you go the other direction and change the paradigm and function of the system you will almost certainly get major changes. A paradigm shift is when things move on that level, but of course, those things happen very rarely.

For example, the last time Western society had a major cultural paradigm shift was approximately five hundred years ago as we entered the modern era. This really did change almost every aspect of these societies; it created a new body of knowledge with the scientific revolution; a new system of political organization with the Enlightenment, French Revolution and the rise of the modern republic nation-state; a new technology base with the industrial revolution; a new economic organizational paradigm with capitalism; a new way of structuring organisations with the bureaucracy. All of that followed naturally from a shift in the underlying cultural paradigm from one grounded in the spirituality of the middle ages to a materialistic scientific paradigm of the modern era.

Jay W. Forrester described complex systems as being counterintuitive.[2] Leverage points are likewise not intuitive or if they are, we intuitively use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve. For example, if we were to take a political system and look for the leverage point we would likely look to the top of the hierarchy, thinking that if we could just change what the leader is doing then this would affect everyone else. But of course, the leader is just an actor in the system who is responding to events. A politician with four years in office will spend most of their time putting out fires and catering to the interest of those who voted for them so as to get reelected. Where this analysis fails is that it looks for the leverage points all on one level – the event level – but just like the Iceberg model the leverage points are in abstraction, you have to remove the successive layers of detail before you will get to the fundamentals where the leverage really is. Looking for leverage points on the event level will lead you astray.

Quality & Quantity

Our non-systematic ways of thinking lead us to focus on low leverage changes: we focus on symptoms where the stress is greatest – trying to accumulate a large number of resources or get into positions of authority so as to remove or ameliorate the symptoms. However, leverage follows the principle of economy of means: where the best results come not from large-scale efforts but from small well-focused actions. Orit Gal suggest the idea of social acupuncture which[3] “explores how analysing the deeper interactions sustaining patterns can be used to identify leverage points; and how small accumulative interventions across such points can be used to disrupt and transform them.”

Real systems change comes from a change in quality. The high leverage points are really in the qualitative factors of the system, they are the things that are not being measured or accounted for and thus they go largely unnoticed. A reductionist analytical approach has led our cultures to place an overemphasis on quantity and numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. In a systems normal state of operations, it may well be that quantity matters most because it is in a linear regime, but it is quality that creates change, nonlinear change is a qualitative change. It is the one person who acts qualitatively differently by standing up and saying “no, I will not take a bribe”. If you look at major changes like the fall of the British Empire in India, that was accelerated by a person that acted qualitatively differently to the way most people do.

1. Reinsborough, P., & Canning, D. (2020). Points of intervention | Beautiful Trouble. Retrieved 18 August 2020, from https://beautifultrouble.org/theory/points-of-intervention/

2. Constitution.org. (2018). Jay W. Forrester: Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems. [online] Available at: http://www.constitution.org/ps/cbss.htm [Accessed 26 Jul. 2018].

3. Social Acupuncture. (2018). About Social Acupuncture. [online] Available at: http://www.socialacupuncture.co.uk/about/ [Accessed 26 Jul. 2018].

Systems Innovation

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