Linking Out Loud #13: Leverage Points

By David Laing

Dear readers,

If there were ever an appropriate place to use the Galaxy Brain meme unironically, it would be to describe Donella Meadows' 1999 essay, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Reflecting on her career as an environmental scientist, Meadows lists twelve categories of "leverage points"—metaphorical buttons to press to change the performance or behavior of a system— from least to most impactful.

I encourage you to read the essay in full. You will feel your brain expanding as you go. But if you don't have time, here is my summary, in Galaxy Brain form:

Parameters

The least impactful way to intervene in a system is to change the values of its parameters. Consider sleep. On any given day, I can tweak several parameters: what time I go to bed; how much caffeine I consume; how much water I drink in the evening; etc. Changing parameters does have some effect, but it has less of an effect than applying any of the other leverage points.

Feedback loops

Much more impactful is to create new feedback loops, or alter existing ones. While I may succeed in going to bed on time one night, I am likely to fail the next night if the consequences of failure are not clear or timely. Fatigue provides some feedback, but it kicks in too slowly and it’s often vague—after a few nights of too little sleep I’ll find that I’m in a bad mood, or that I’m distractible. That’s why I like my Fitbit: it tells me immediately when I didn’t sleep enough, and this motivates me get to bed on time the following night.

Goals

As we evolve from the regular brain to the shining one, there is a phase shift. We are no longer pressing buttons that affect the system's performance; we are pressing buttons that affect its purpose. As much as I could change my sleep habits by tweaking parameters and feedback loops, I’m likely to change them even more by reframing the goal of those habits—say, from sleeping more to sleeping better. Goals are more powerful leverage points than parameters or feedback loops because they influence every part of the system, not just individual components of it.

Paradigms

Finally, as we evolve to the Galaxy Brain, we change something even deeper than the goals of the system: we change the paradigm or mindset that gives rise to those goals. For example, perhaps I realize that the true linchpin of my well-being is not sleep, but diet. This change in mindset is likely to affect much more than just my sleep habits. That’s why paradigms are the most impactful leverage point: they affect not just one system, but many.

It’s not always appropriate to apply the most powerful leverage point available. Sometimes the paradigms, goals, and feedback loops are already configured correctly, and the only things left to fix are the parameters.

But often it is wise to look beyond parameters, especially when appraising the systems that affect us all, like government, education, the economy, and the natural world. Like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot, we sometimes need leverage points that have the power to slice through our problems, rather than trying in vain to untangle them from the inside.

Yours galactically,

David