Leverage theory

Last updated Mar 7, 2023 | Originally published Feb 24, 2023

We seek leverage to find the best ways of making change.

Leverage points are places in systems where a little effort yields a big effect (Meadows, 1997). They are also ideas that help us grab on to strategic ways forward when we’re working in complexity (Klein & Wolf, 1998).

Acting on leverage points may accelerate systemic change towards progress and reform, but acting on the wrong ones may instead accelerate systemic change towards regression and deformity. Well-designed leverage strategies may be catalyzing or even transformative, but poorly designed ones may merely be futile (figure 1).

One way of finding leverage points is to think through your system with reference to Meadows’s (1997) 12 types:

Table 1. Twelve types of leverage points, in order of increasing power (adapted from Meadows, 1997).

Twelve types of leverage points, in order of increasing power Example
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards) Wages, interest rates
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows. Current levels of debt/assets
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures) An individual’s financial structure (e.g., fixed costs and incomes)
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change How long it takes to find a higher-paying job
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against Rising costs of living vs. fixed income
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops Recession causing reducing spending
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information) How aware you are of impending recession/future rising costs
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints) Who suffers as a result of poorly-managed recessions
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure Central banks, Ministries of Finance
3. The goals of the system GDP Growth
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises Growth above all
1. The power to transcend paradigms Sustainable development, flourishing

Another approach, which may be complementary to the above, is to model the system as a causal loop diagram (e.g., Kim, 1992) and then to conduct leverage analysis (Murphy & Jones, 2020) on the model.

An understanding of leverage in a system allows us to generate systemic strategies (Murphy & Jones, 2020). These strategies can also be adapted into Theories of Systemic Change (Murphy & Jones, 2020).

# Background

Donella Meadows (1997) popularized the idea of leverage in systemic change with her essay “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in Complex Systems.” She proposed a typology of phenomena in a system, suggesting that acting on certain types of phenomena are higher-leverage than others.

In an article published in the Contexts journal of systemic design, I challenged Meadows’s (1997) paradigm, proposing a few other possible ways of viewing leverage. My aim was to link the search for leverage directly to the design of powerful strategies for systemic change, and to propose a few ways forward in advancing our understanding of leverage in complex systems.