Leverage Points and Performance Work

Anyone who has studied systems thinking or looked at the science of complexity is familiar with the concept of leverage points.  A leverage point within a system is a point where a little bit of action produces a disproportionately large amount of impact.   For instance, if we have a fire in a room, it may take a lot of water to put the fire out.  Or, if the room is airtight we can simply shut the door and the lack of oxygen can shut the fire down almost immediately.  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.  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.  We spend money or provide people or buy more resources (new computers, new equipment, new office space).  Or we pass laws or change company policy.  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 don’t involve either a leverage point or involve a relative low-level one (that doesn’t have significant impact).  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, here’s something to think about:  providing training for personnel is generally speaking, a relatively ineffective leverage point.  Again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train.  Only that providing training rarely produces significant change.  The system has adapted to or reinforces the existing low skill level.  Absent some other intervention with how things interact, the system will act to “dumb down” 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 fail—because they’re not based on a systems perspective.

Joe Willmore, President