Ten Ways to Change a System

Network diagram v2
Network diagram v2

This morning, my husband and I hunkered down on the squat wooden chairs in our son’s first grade classroom and had a conference with his new teacher. From our first interactions it was clear she has a keen intelligence and a gentle bearing, and she has me reflecting on my own extraordinary teachers, from childhood to today. Inevitably, I think of Dana Meadows, a scientist, writer, and systems thinker who was a professor of mine in college and who fundamentally shaped my life path. Dana was a brilliant scientist who built computer models to generate insight into how complex systems function – and who fearlessly brought her heart as well as her brain to the undertaking. She was a pioneer in the field of system dynamics, yet she took the time to invite my whole class to her house to watch the movie Gandhi and snack on carrots from her garden.

Since blogs these days seem to be replete with top ten lists, here is one from Dana:

"Places to Intervene in a System” (in increasing order of effectiveness) 10. Constants, parameters, numbers. (such as subsidies, taxes, standards) 9. Material stocks and flows 8. Regulating negative feedback loops 7. Driving positive feedback loops. 6. Information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information). 5. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints). 4. The power of 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, structures, rules, delays, parameters - arise 1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

To decode much of this, you will want to her full article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. But for those among you on the hunt for magic buttons to get change fast, be forewarned. These are the final lines of the article:

“Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

Be rigorous, be humble, and let go strategically. These are lessons from an exceptional teacher that I expect to be learning for some time to come.