Anyone who has studied systems thinking or looked at the science of complexity is familiar with the concept of leverage points. Â A leverage point within a system is a point where a little bit of action produces a disproportionately large amount of impact. Â For instance, if we have a fire in a room, it may take a lot of water to put the fire out. Â Or, if the room is airtight we can simply shut the door and the lack of oxygen can shut the fire down almost immediately. Â In this instance, the access to oxygen is a leverage point for the fire.
Donella Meadows has done some great work around leverage points for complex systems. Â Besides identifying the 12 types of leverage points, Meadows has also determined generally which ones provide more leverage.
Typically, we (meaning senior management or government executives) throw resources at a problem. Â We spend money or provide people or buy more resources (new computers, new equipment, new office space). Â Or we pass laws or change company policy. Â But what Meadows points out is that (surprise, surprise), most of these actions are relatively ineffective because they typically deal with ways of changing a dynamic system that donâ€™t involve either a leverage point or involve a relative low-level one (that doesnâ€™t have significant impact). Â For instance, if you believe that your organization has a lot of unskilled performers, hiring new employees with more skills or competence, while not a bad idea, usually is a very low-impact leverage point.
For those trainers out there reading this, hereâ€™s something to think about: Â providing training for personnel is generally speaking, a relatively ineffective leverage point. Â Again, that doesnâ€™t mean we shouldnâ€™t train. Â Only that providing training rarely produces significant change. Â The system has adapted to or reinforces the existing low skill level. Â Absent some other intervention with how things interact, the system will act to â€œdumb downâ€ those newly trained employees or reduce the impact of their training.
The concept and study of leverage points is a compelling lesson about the need to view performance from a systems perspective and why most organizational efforts at improvement are doomed to failâ€”because theyâ€™re not based on a systems perspective.
Joe Willmore, President