Leverage is a mechanical construct — commonly understood to be the exertion of force, by means of a lever on an object, to get that object to move. Leverage requires effort. For this reason it is most effective when applied with precision in engineering environments.
More recently, of course, the analogy of leverage has been appropriated for use in other contexts — such as finance and management. But by using the notion of leverage in these situations we can run into trouble. It is especially difficult to adapt to strategic navigation, where circumstances change all the time, and where constant adaptation is necessary.
When leverage is attempted in any complex system, like an organisation for example, the effort entailed can run counter to the desired intentions, derailing plans and inadvertently harming one or more component parts — including people of course. It can also lead to a number of unforeseen consequences unless, that is, a profound knowledge of the system prevails. In these circumstances, higher order leverage points are a wiser alternative.
Higher order leverage points are locations within an ecosystem (an organisation, living body, economy, or a city, for example) where a small shift in one element can produce substantial desired changes across the entire ecosystem. Generally speaking, far less effort is required from higher order leverage points. But changes resulting from leverage can still be entirely unpredictable, and even volatile, requiring a refined sense of monitoring and a navigational agility in order to ensure that the resulting changes are what was intended.
The idea of higher order leverage is not unique to change in large systems — it is embedded in legend. The silver bullet, the trimtab, the miracle cure, the magic password, the single hero who turns the tide of history. The nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles. We not only want to believe that there are leverage points, we want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them. Leverage points are points of power.[i]
Practitioners who acquire expertise using higher order leverage points begin to develop an instinct for where to intervene in any ecosystem, given a number of factors, including, most importantly, prevailing external conditions, internal dynamics and current state, feedback loops, adaptive and emergent properties, for example. Sometimes there can be such a wide range of leveragable options that more than one point can, or may need to be, activated, concurrently or in a particular sequence, in order to ensure success.
This becomes more likely in the case of vivisystems, such as the geopolitical muddle in the Middle East, for example, where orders of complexity prevent any individual, or group of like-minded individuals, comprehending the whole impenetrable mess or, indeed, being able to fathom particular elements — such as the system’s current state and performance, reinforcing and balancing loops, information flows, the structure of material stocks and flows, local rules, degree of autopoiesis, lengths of delays relative to the rate of change in the system, power structures, and the nature of any deliberate intentions to block or impede change.
An additional factor, in evidence accumulated over decades, suggests that the most effective higher order leverage points are likely to be counterintuitive, conflict with prevailing myths, and appear to be in opposition to the imperatives of at least one, or possibly more, interest groups.
Sometimes higher order leverage points are commonly understood and acknowledged, and yet existing habits persuade everyone to push in the wrong direction. An oft-quoted example is economic growth. Politicians around the world are correctly fixated on economic growth as the solution to many of the problems we face today. Unfortunately, in their ignorance of complex systems, they are usually pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.
In 1971 Jay Forrester, a professor of engineering and systems science at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, showed that many of the most critical global issues, including malnutrition, environmental devastation, poverty, resource depletion, and urban decay, for example, were not just related, but a direct result of our belief that all positive growth is good. He was able to show that the pursuit of unbridled growth, in terms both of population and finance, within the orthodoxy of modern capitalism, can often worsen a situation. Where policies are more nuanced — to flatten, reduce, or even usher in a period of negative growth — many undesired outcomes can be avoided. This runs counter to popular belief, but happens to be true. So where does this leave us?
Studying forces and dynamics in human-centered ecosystems can help us identify a class of higher order leverage points that require less effort to activate — through the application of more concentrated self-organising energy to the meridians in the organisational structure. I call these systemic acupuncture points for three very good reasons. They have a similar effect to acupuncture on the human body to restore balance and change energy flows, with similar degrees of predictive accuracy, and with the same lack of invasiveness.
Compared with traditional leverage points used by the major consulting firms, such as down-sizing, initiating cultural change programs, or process re-engineering, all based on analysis of available quantitative data, together with that analysis communicated and argued via charts and decks, systemic acupuncture tends to be less obvious. It is more inclusive, appreciative of factors other than data, more benign, and less disruptive. Indeed it can be effective given a slightest nudge to the system, as long as that nudge is applied wisely. This is because, unlike leverage, systemic acupuncture rides on the emotional energy flows coursing through the nerves of the ecosystem.
As a general rule, systemic acupuncture points might include the authority to add, change, evolve, or self-organise systemic structures; the power to determine goals and motivating narratives; the unique mindsets out of which the system evolves; and the inspiration to transcend the current paradigm within which the ecosystem functions.
The role of narrative in particular, should not be underestimated in expressing whole-system goals. Indeed the dominant narrative is likely to be superior to the system’s capacity for self-organisation. If the dominant narrative, and the intentions behind that narrative, are strong, credible, and align with the tacit inclinations of the majority of players within the system, everything else will be twisted to conform accordingly. In 1931, a new leader seized control of the German Nazi Party, enunciated a new story, and swung millions of otherwise rational and intelligent people off in a new direction. From ancient epics to modern novels, some narratives have altered history and influenced the mindsets of generations.
This is also an illustration of paradigmatic power — the deepest, most implicit, set of beliefs within the mind of a society about how the world works. Paradigms inspire information flows across the entire system. What is more they can do it instantly. They are also the source of the system’s current state — the shared social agreements about the nature of reality.
When leaders have the power to control the current paradigm, transcending it at whim or twisting the dominant narratives to their own ends, we witness the most powerful form of systemic acupuncture: the dynamics within the entire system become open to all forms of transformation and manipulation.
I realise that all of this can sound quite mystical, and probably for that reason I am often asked to describe how systemic acupuncture works in practise by a sceptical audience.
While I am sure there are many answers to that question, the process I use is a relatively straightforward and unobtrusive way of liberating deliberate, precisely calibrated, change with the least amount of resources and effort. It is my transformational tool of choice in situations where apparently unresolvable dilemmas persist and where the situation is too slippery to pin down for any length of time.
Time after time it can be shown that a predictable change outcome does not have to be difficult, costly, or protracted. Yet it rarely stems from the more engineered approaches to planned leverage and change that the large consulting firms still use. Their mistake is not to recognise one very simple fact: that while many issues can produce seemingly identical conditions and consequences, the change impulse demanded in each case is unique and subtle. Thus elegance of design becomes critical for success.
In systemic acupuncture desired change is precisely crafted by finding the most relevant meridians in the system and changing those factors that are causing the current situation to be the only one possible. The process is a curated experience of deep design and non-invasive action. It combines an intimate, polyocular understanding of the situation, and its evolution, with other expertise, in management cybernetics, neuropsychology and viable systems for example.
First, all the evidence must be subjected to a deep forensic interrogation. Starting with visualisations of the dynamics existing within the ecosystem, potentially distracting stuff is set aside, possible constraints are detected, and different hypotheses proposed. At this stage uncommon questions are posed to reveal the current state of the ecosystem, as well as any limits built into it that makes that current state and its dynamics inevitable; explain the situation and its patterns in the finest granularity, as well as its overall impact on the larger context; illustrate specific impacts of the situation on local conditions; identify any balancing loops and factors that might be causing the current situation to manifest; and articulate a desired state, together with the criteria and conditions that would prevail if the problem could be eliminated. This is a world away from relying purely on data analysis.
This rigorous interrogation is then repeated several times. Each repetition brings a more profound analysis to the fore. This allows a further stripping away of invalid assumptions so that new links between those factors limiting the emergence of alternative possibilities can be observed. Greater granularity is achieved by using proprietary algorithms to scan literally hundreds of millions of unstructured data, from which an array of latent options can be constructed. Alternative intervention points, previously unseen, or obscured by irrelevant assumptions, now become visible.
Follow-up conversations between the concerned parties, of similar duration and intensity to the original investigations, focus on the scripting of a single communication or action (or suite of low-profile and precisely detailed procedures) that can be deployed instantly and with little or no marginal cost. Because solutions are designed to be inconspicuous, aligning as closely as possible to what is currently being done, risk is greatly diminished.
Thus, purposeful change can be guided in a manner where the desired outcomes are achieved with a high degree of certainty. And if the original intervention is off-target it is unlikely that any undesirable effects will accrue, which allows for a further, more elegant, refinement of the solution to be deployed.
As can be appreciated from this description, the success of the process hinges on three components: the visualisation of complexity, forensic analysis, and collaborative dialogue.
Even then I am frequently asked how we are able to achieve the desired results so quickly and with such precision. Again this is no mystery: success comes from amplifying what is known about the ecosystem so as to generate a profound knowledge for change.
Within the framework of dynamically evolving human systems, questions that surface the deeper design are key. Questions such as:
· Which uncertainties must we take into account (because of their future impact) and which can we safely ignore?
· What is it about the current situation that makes it the only possible one?
· How is that which is currently happening being allowed to happen?
· Which assumptions are obscuring clarity concerning this situation?
· What specific set of constraints exists within the current system that prevents different outcomes from manifesting?
· Which constraints, if removed, altered or replaced by others, would enable a transformational shift to the state of the system?
· What alternative options are most desired?
· What is the smallest intervention (or set of actions) that would remove any constraints limiting alternative options?
· How should we craft this intervention to be minimally non-invasive?
The results from this intensive interrogation of the situation are then used to identify the most effective acupuncture points and craft in precise detail the action (or set of actions) that must be implemented.
After using systemic acupundture for almost a quarter of a century it is clear that by using this approach organisations avoid solving the wrong problem and prevent inordinate amounts of time and effort being wasted trying to get the wrong solution to work.
[i]Donella Meadows — Leverage points: places to intervene in a system