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Towards a theory of leverage for strategic systemic change

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

My article “Leverage for Systemic Change” was recently published in the inaugural edition of Contexts, from the Systemic Design Association.

The article ultimately proposes a few key directions for a research agenda on leverage in systemic design (see the table below).

Table 1. A research agenda for leverage theory in systemic design

Research area Research questions Existing research Possible studies Possible contributions
Dimensions of leverage - Is Meadows’s¬†(1997) typology complete?
- What other features of the “physics” of systemic change might matter?
- System characteristics (Abson et al., 2017)
- Conditions for systemic change Kania, Kramer, & Senge, 2018)
- Other types of phenomena (e.g., bottlenecks, signals; Murphy & Jones, 2020)
- Relative leverage: chaining leverage points (Fischer & Riechers, 2019)
- Relative leverage: the context of the changemaker (Klein & Wolf, 1998)
- Recursive leverage
- A systematic literature review (Okoli & Schabram, 2010) of leverage points, especially using forward citations (Haddaway et al., 2022) from (Meadows, 1997)

- Understanding the nature of leverage and other mechanisms of change potential in systemic change
Methods for leverage - What methodologies are best to identify and select leverage points?
- What kinds of evidence will help validate leverage?
- How might systemic designers design theories of change (Gregor & Jones, 2007) for leverage theories?
- How might systemic designers limit indeterminism (Lukyanenko & Parsons, 2020) in leverage theories?
- Meadows’s¬†(1997) typology’s order of effectiveness
- Leverage analysis [Murphy & Jones, 2020]
- Assessing potential for change (Birney, 2021)
- Surveying practitioners in systemic design on how they identify, assess, and address leverage points to identify common habits and best practices - How to identify phenomena useful for leverage
- How to evaluate and compare possible leverage points in the analysis phase
- How to evaluate the effectiveness of chosen leverage points with evidence gathered from implementations
Strategy with leverage - How is leverage best used in developing strategic plans for systemic change?
- How are leverage-based strategies best presented and communicated?
- How are leverage-based strategies best evaluated and measured?
- Systemic strategy (Murphy & Jones, 2021)
- The epistemic benefits of a leverage points perspective (Fischer & Riechers, 2019)
- Identifying conditions for systemic change (Kania et al., 2018)
- Relative leverage: chaining leverage points (Fischer & Riechers, 2019)
- Relative leverage: the context of the changemaker (Klein & Wolf, 1998)
- “Systemic change labs” tracing and comparing the impact of interventions using different kinds of leverage
- How to use leverage to develop better strategies for systemic change
- How to account for relative context in the design of high-leverage strategies
Execution on leverage - What are the best ways to target different kinds of leverage for systemic change? (E.g., how might we help actors in a system track all of the relevant paradigms?) - Fruitful friction as a tactic for transcending paradigms (Buckenmayer et al., 2021)
- Systemic change happens via multiple dimensions of change (Mulder et al., 2022)
- Design Journeys offers several chapters on taking action after identifying leverage points (Jones & Ael, 2022)
- “Systemic change labs” tracing and comparing the impact of interventions using different kinds of leverage - How to design innovations for each type of leverage

Some other key takeaways:

Leverage points can be futile, catalyzing, or transformative, and they progressively reform or regressively deform our systems.