Exploring Pathways to Systems Change

Andaman Forest, a Natural System, by Anna da Costa

Andaman Forest, a Natural System. By Anna da Costa

By Anna da Costa

When it comes to making the world a better place, there is no dearth of ideas out there. Some believe in the power of markets to level playing fields and distribute dwindling resources. Some see our best hopes in technological innovation and smart systems. Others look to the potential of enterprise to transform the way society operates, with new business models and novel currencies. Some firmly believe we should go back to basics, using less and re-examining our values. And some believe that we need deep changes in the structure of our political and economic systems for any lasting impact.

Each of these solutions likely contains some truth and, when examined closely, are intimately connected. However, with limited time and resources, it is important to ask ourselves how to discriminate between these efforts in terms of their potency; how to achieve systems change.

One person who had a lot to say about this question was systems theorist and lead author of the book “Limits to Growth,” Donella Meadows.

In her beautiful essay from 1999, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, Meadows elucidates her thoughts in some depth. Distilled from a lifetime of research and reflection on systems theory, she outlines a series of twelve key pathways – what she calls “leverage points” – of increasing potency through which one can bring about changes in the way a system functions. [1]

Leverage points, says Meadows, are “places within a complex system…” – be it a company, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem, or even a galaxy for that matter – “…where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” They are, therefore, of immense interest to anyone seeking to affect change within our interconnected ecological, social and economic systems.

In describing these pathways, not only does Meadows allude to the potential power of the meditative or open mind, but also to a host of other vital yet largely ignored approaches that are worthy of our consideration as we seek to affect deep change. So what, then, are these leverage points?

What are the Leverage Points?
Donella Meadows’ twelve leverage points can be divided into four loose groupings – physical, informational, social and conscious – as shown in the table and discussed, below. These groupings were not assigned by Meadows herself, but are my interpretations as a means of simplifying the theory and examining systems within the human realm of experience and influence.

Leverage Point Categories Table

  • Physical Leverage

The first grouping encompasses all changes to the physical elements of a system. This could include changes to “system parameters,” in other words how much of something, like pollution, happens. It could also include changes to the size or properties of system’s physical reserves (stocks), for example water reservoirs, forests or energy stores. Finally, it could include multiple changes to a system’s physical structure, for example the way transport networks and buildings are designed, or the shape and flow of a power grid.

While all changes to a system ultimately materialize in its physical form, Meadows suggests that interventions focused primarily on physical changes are some of the least powerful ways to affect deep change. Yet, she proffers that a stunning 99 percent of our efforts towards social, environmental and economic system sustainability (or “change”) are spent working with these kinds of solutions. This alone, she cautions, does little more than “tinker with a broken system.”

So what then are the other pathways to change and why aren’t we using them more?

  • Informational Leverage

Systems are both stabilized and destabilized by the ways that information flows through them, and it is this medium that characterizes the next group of leverage points. Through managing the relationships between positive and negative feedback loops, optimizing the speeds at which information flows and creating new loops to connect different system elements, the way a system works can be dramatically impacted.

One of the most obvious examples in our own lives is the way in which the Internet has dramatically affected how our world operates, including material flows, the way that businesses are structured and function, not to mention our behavioral patterns and social systems more broadly. This has all been made possible by creating new pathways via which information can flow, connecting elements that were never before connected or connecting elements more rapidly. The transition from telegrams, to letters, to emails, to text messages has had an immense impact on the way we interact with each other, has it not?

  • Social Leverage

Yet beyond information flows, says Meadows, there are even more powerful ways to affect a system, and these – at least for human-influenced systems – belong to the realm of social dynamics. Amongst these leverage points lies the capacity to change both the rules and goals of a system: in other words, what a system seeks to achieve and how.

System rules, says Meadows, are typically derived from a system goal, which, if changed, can dramatically impact the informational and physical structures that lie beneath it. We might imagine the impact, to take an often-used example, of deciding to change the goal of our economy from the growth of GDP to an alternative metric such as Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index or some of the many others that are now emerging. Similarly, amongst so-called “social enterprises” we frequently see shifts in the primary goal from pure economic returns to social and/or environmental ones, with financial returns even being demoted to the status of a means rather than an end. Shifts in goal could also apply to modes of governance within a country or company, for example whether it is highly democratic and bottom-up or autocratic and top down.

  • Conscious Leverage

Each of these shifts in goal holds tremendous potential to catalyze deep change within a system, and we could explore many more such examples. But finally, says Meadows, we must ask ourselves from where such changes first arise? According to her theory, there is another grouping of leverage points that creates the space for such shifts and, as such, has the potential to transform a system with the greatest power. It is our human capacity for consciousness.

Working at the Level of Consciousness
To facilitate such transformative change within a system, says Meadows, we need to be willing to challenge our very assumptions about the way things are, acknowledging our relative insignificance as human beings and evoking the capacity to look at the world through unknowing eyes. We need to nurture the capacity to remain unattached to the idea that any paradigm represents the complete truth and to recognize the “tremendous limitations of our worldview.”

“In the end,” she says, “power has less to do with leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.” She speaks about the most powerful and elusive pathway to change being the letting go of all preconceptions and of all assumptions about the way things are and why; resting in the humility of our situation as human beings, with our limited understanding of this universe in which we find ourselves; and creating the space to challenge every preconception and every paradigm we hold to be true about life and purpose.

This is what the Buddhists term “enlightenment,” says Meadows, and it is from this internal space of ‘un-knowing’ that the most powerful sources of system change can arise, unlocking the potential for new paradigms and system goals, rules and structures to emerge. This, according to Meadows, is the most rare, yet potentially most powerful, source of change.

In defining this series of pathways, I don’t think Meadows is suggesting that all of our current efforts – at whatever level – are meaningless, or that we should just detach ourselves from society and meditate. Rather, that without working with these higher leverage points, engaging our inner worlds in the process of change and facilitating higher transitions in our social, economic and political systems, our current efforts are at risk of being fairly impotent.

Facing Resistance from the System
If it is indeed the case that we need to make a greater effort working with some of the more powerful pathways to change, I ask myself, why do we spend so much time at the base of the hierarchy, “tinkering with” the least powerful leverage points?

Here’s the clincher. The more potent a pathway to change, the more resistance it will face from the current system. “That’s why societies often rub out truly enlightened beings,” says Meadows.

Challenging social, economic and political norms, uprooting the status quo, questioning the way things are, re-examining our core values and opening our minds is not easy. Living systems, of any nature, seek to perpetuate themselves and resist change. But what Meadows suggests is that if we can work more with these potent pathways to change, our efforts could hold promise of being deeply transformative.

Alongside Meadows
Meadows is by no means alone in her assertions that there is a crucial, yet oft ignored, relationship between our internal and external environment, that one affects the other.

She finds herself in the company of religious leaders and their accompanying texts, philosophers, poets, literary scholars and, indeed, an increasing number of development practitioners. It was Aldous Huxley who famously said, “I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Mahatma Gandhi encouraged us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and the sacred Jewish Talmud reminds us that “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

This January, an article highlighted Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that climate change could not be effectively addressed by humanity until we had better learned to weather our internal storms and through doing so, realized on a personal level the interconnectedness of all life.

Beyond Buddhist frames of reference, too, we need not look far to hear increasing talk of the importance of changing mindsets and challenging widely held assumptions about the way things are in our quest for sustainability. Jonathan Dawson, Head of Economics at Schumacher College argued in a recent article that “the creation myths and assumptions underlying classical economics are revealed to be shallow, erroneous and unhelpful,” instead stating that we need to adopt a wholly different paradigm for our economic system, modeled on the natural world.

In India’s teeming capital, New Delhi, I attended a recent sustainability summit during which countless speakers spoke of the need to transform systems through challenging mindsets, assumptions, goals and present-day structures. “We need to rewire the whole system; to get away from growth as we know it,” said writer and New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman. “We should be redefining GDP right now. My motto right now is ‘Break all the rules.’ We need to be radical. This is a systems problem. If you don’t have a systemic response, you have a hobby.”

Testing the Theory
I found Meadows’ theory fascinating not only for its firm acknowledgement of the importance of nurturing those inner qualities of humanity, perception, awareness and relationship that exist within us, but for the many interconnected leverage points it calls us to reflect upon and work with, too. Intrigued by these ideas, I wanted to test them.

To do so, I mapped her theory in a very basic way onto the business world, comparing a range of businesses that were actively seeking to affect positive social and environmental change in terms of their application of different leverage points, or their “leverage potential.” I also measured their “sustainability potential” using a framework based on ecological systems theory. [2]

Interestingly, those businesses with the greatest potential for long-term social and environmental sustainability also showed evidence for a greater presence of higher leverage strategies. They had business models, for example, with alternative primary goals, unconventional governance structures, innovative information platforms and/or flows and greater cross-sector collaboration. Though not by design, they all described themselves as “social enterprises” and were very directly experiencing an array of resistance from our current system; not least in the form of an economy that didn’t value the forms of capital they were creating.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in describing the characteristics of social entrepreneurs in their book “The Power of Unreasonable People,” John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan include “insane ambition,” “ignoring the evidence,” “seeking profit in unprofitable pursuits” and “trying to measure the unmeasurable.” These entrepreneurs, like a new species, seem to be seeking to change the system from within, changing the paradigms by which the business instrument might be applied within society today. My research was experimental and highly qualitative, but what does it leave us to chew on?

Moving Inward, Moving Outward
Meadows’ ideas exist on multiple levels, with many implications and subtleties that are impossible to touch on, let alone explore in any depth here. But perhaps more than anything, they are a reminder of the importance of examining where the directive force for change is coming from and whether the solutions we develop are as deeply transformative as they could be.

They encourage us to think outside the box, to think beyond the conventional paradigms to which we conform, to question our relationship to one another and the world around us and to question our ultimate goals far more deeply. Once we start seeing things in this way, it is difficult to stop. And indeed, it is encouraging to see a growing movement of people emerging across sectors and geographies who are taking up such approaches today.

The question, of course, is whether we are working at these levels enough, and the proposal is that we could be more effective by simultaneously seeking to develop that elusive yet powerful quality within ourselves that is consciousness.

For further, practical reading, see Meadows’ Tools for the Transition to Sustainability, originally published in 2004 in “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.”


[1] Systems exist at multiple interconnected levels from single cell to organism, from company to economy, from family to society and from atom to ecosystem to galaxy. Meadows herself defines a system as an “interconnected set of elements that [are] coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” Whether material or non-material, without each property – elements, relationships between the elements and a purpose or goal – a given grouping cannot be described as a system. Within a system are typically found one or more ‘stocks.’ These may be physical or virtual and their size and state are affected by both their inputs and outputs. There are a number of ways that a system’s dynamics can be changed, but all involve influencing the system properties described above. Understanding and working with these factors can result in deep-acting systems change on multiple levels.

[2] This work formed the basis of my Masters thesis. To assess the “sustainability potential” of a business, I created a framework with which to score them based upon ecological systems theory, which drew heavily on ideas found within industrial ecology. Essentially, the more properties businesses displayed that mimicked the principles found operating within natural resilient systems, the higher they scored.

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3 Responses to Exploring Pathways to Systems Change

  1. A great introduction to Dana Meadows’ work. My sense is that she, like many others, is seeing patterns at play and trying to deduce how to take action. Where I get disappointed is that often solutions show up as statements or instructions/demands, for example “work at the individual level” or “work across the system.” Rarely is there a pragmatic answer that helps me address the question of how?

    What shifted my capacity to truly work in a systems way and to support others to do so was diving into the work of Dr. Glenda Eoyang. In the field of which she is the founder, Human Systems Dynamics, she has gifted us with genius insight which enables us to effect change within our own human systems – at any and all levels. With only 3 conditions, the challenge of working with complexity becomes simple and, in seeing and understanding more and differently, we become more potent, conscious actors of change. Read her new book “Adaptive Action” to find out more!

  2. […] Also appears on the Sustainability Leaders Network. […]

  3. “Though not by design, they all described themselves as ‘social enterprises’ and were very directly experiencing an array of resistance from our current system; not least in the form of an economy that didn’t value the forms of capital they were creating.”

    How did these social enterprises, then, go about sustaining themselves? In your opinion, how can a business grow divergent from the existing economy?

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