One of the most critical skills for any leader today is the ability to intervene effectively in complex systems (and to engage others in doing so) in order to create more functional structures that adapt to our ever-changing needs and goals. Systems thinking pioneer, Donella Meadows—author of Thinking in Systems—identified 12 points of leverage for intervening in systems and arranged them in order of their power to influence the system as a whole. The most powerful of these is the ability to navigate paradigms and use them as material in a creative process of system design/redesign. The next—and perhaps the most challenging for many leaders today—is the ability to “get outside” one’s own system or paradigm, to be able to map it, understand its structure and function objectively rather than subjectively…the famous fish jumping out of its bowl. Other leverage points moving down the list include understanding and creating the goals of a system (which may include competing goals that hold the system back), achieving self-organization, the rules of the system, access to information, feedback loops, delays in the systems, and so forth.
We have adapted Meadows’ model to be practical in the context of complex project and organization systems and leading change. We have also completed an inventory of frameworks and methods that can be applied at each level of intervention.