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Finding High Leverage with systems THINKING

Welcome to – the new Pontifex Consulting site. This column is the first in our ongoing conversation on high leverage – how we can find it in this increasingly complex world we inhabit. And how we can Live the High Leverage Life.

My colleague, Michael Goodman, uses the following story to illustrate our common – low / no leverage – approach to solving problems.

A man was walking home late at night when he came across another fellow crawling around on the ground underneath a street light. Perplexed, the man asks “What are you doing?” The fellow on his hands and knees answers “Looking for my keys. I lost them.” Wanting to be helpful, the first man asks, “Would you like me to look with you?” “Yes! That would be great!” So the first man also gets on his hands and knees and begins crawling around on the ground looking under the street light. After about 10 minutes he starts to think they’ve covered most of this limited area and that it would be a good idea to focus the search. “Can you help me to help you better? Where did you lose them over here?” To which the other fellow says, “I didn’t lose them over here. I lost them over there” and points into the dark where it appears there may be some heavy underbrush. “Well, why are you looking here and not over there?!” the first fellow asks. “Because there’s no light over there!”

And this is how we often approach problems. We continue searching for solutions in the same obvious “well lit” places, often trying the same old solutions – over and over – and expecting a different result. It’s like being stuck on an insane hamster wheel of thinking and acting. There’s no leverage in this!

By leverage I mean fundamentally improving the performance of a system while reducing the likelihood of unintended consequences. systems THINKING is a disciplined, rigorous framework for increasing your chances of finding high leverage solutions. In this and future blog(s), I will write about how you can build your capacity to apply systems THINKING (and other complementary skills) to find t
he leverage you need to make a difference – to solve important problems you and your organization must – and create the future you want.

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in the System Leverage Points
is perhaps the best article describing how to apply systems THINKING to find leverage. The author, Donella Meadows, lists several types of interventions, ranging from very
low leverage to highest leverage. These principles are based on her (and other practitioners) experience building system dynamics models to address global sustainability challenges and other wicked problems. In order to make the concepts of leverage come alive, I’ll use an example that everyone will relate to: getting behind in your work.


The hamster wheel of falling further behind

Everyone has likely experienced having too much to do. Being overwhelmed with too much work is an unpleasant feeling, even if common. When I experience it, I often wake in the middle of the night, restless, tossing and turning…thinking…but getting nowhere, nowhere except tired the next morning.

As tasks accumulate, I try to bring the accumulation down by applying hours and my hourly productivity

One of the first reactions I have to getting behind is just getting used to it…accepting that I am getting further and further behind. This is one of a few common systems traps (called systems archetypes). The trap, called Erosion of Goals, occurs by relaxing the target/standard. As performance relative to a goal begins to worsen, it’s easy to just relax the goal. However, if performance continues to erode, so will the goal.


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As it takes longer to complete tasks (relative to how long I want it to take), I begin to change the goal. I add to the Completion Time Goal, saying it’s okay to take longer. Thus, I “erode my goal”.

Another reaction I have (sometimes before relaxing goals, or sometimes after I believe I can’t let things slip any further behind) is to work harder – ultimately a very low leverage reaction – by working more hours. Sometimes this works. But often what happens is I feel an increase in burnout which lowers my productivity. I become distracted, unfocused while working and it seems to take longer and longer to get the same amount of work done. Neither of the previous reactions are high leverage, given that they don’t fundamentally improve performance and are prone to unintended consequences.


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As my hours increase, there’s a flow of building Burnout. As the stock of Burnout becomes greater, productivity moves in the opposite (o) direction. Tasks to Do accumulate even more, so I work more, so I get more Burnout. This creates a reinforcing (R) loop, aka “vicious cycle”.


Sometimes under these circumstances, I’ve taken work off my plate and “put it on the back burner”, meaning I keep it as work to still do…but I am just putting it off by removing from the pile of what Icurrently consider “required work”. This strategy of increasing a buffer in the system has the short term effect of lowering pressure to either relax my goal or work harder, since the important/urgent stuff becomes all I care about. Unfortunately, this can be short-lived as more important/urgent stuff arrives. Then the pressure to relax the goal or work longer hours reappears. And now there’s even more to do!

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Burnout erodes Health, leading to an inability to dissipate Burnout. This reinforcing (R) loop is also vicious. But if I move tasks to the side (Back Burner Tasks), I take some pressure off…for a while.

At this point I could keep figuring out how to work more hours or shuffle the work around – the hamster wheel – but perhaps I begin seeing these as pretty low leverage. I could find ways to reward myself to keep the goal, from building pressure to lower the goal if I fall behind.

Or there might be something I could do to make the hours I work count more – increasing my hourly productivity. One way to do that is to improve my health, build greater mental acuity from exercise, sleep better…several activities helping me bring my (better and better) “A game” to every work task. This is higher leverage, because I not only can improve my performance directly, but I reap the additional benefit of reducing the build up of burnout which is also depressing my productivity. However, if work continues to come in from “upstream” or “outside”, I will once again fall behind. Although I’ll be getting more of that work done. I’m not sure that counts as improvement

A higher leverage activity is determining why I am getting so much work and see if I can reduce that inflow. By focusing on the underlying mindset I apply (likely unconsciously) to prioritize / accept work, I can either offload current work that’s not high priority or not accept it in the first place. Prioritizing requires thinking about what it is about me and the system that causes me to say “yes” to things I might be better off rejecting. Some of this might require negotiating with a manager or client, while some of it might be more directly within my control (e.g. something I create for myself to do). But this is a deeper level of inquiry, and requires exploring what I value or wish to accomplish.

If I build Clarity of Purpose, I can reduce the amount of work I accept, accept higher leverage work, AND build Health. The building of Health creates a good reinforcing feedback loop (aka virtuous cycle).

But by prioritizing, I can also have an additional impact on health, because in determining what matters I will likely come to the conclusion that my health is something I value – value enough to put time into it. And this will increase my productivity on the more strategic work I do accept. Two benefits for one intervention – that’s higher leverage.

Principles that apply to all systemic issues

The principles from this example can be applied to any system. You can look at the current performance of a system you are engaged in changing (e.g. reducing chronic disease, improving the innovation pipeline, expanding into new markets, etc…) and ask “What system trap might we be experiencing?” (Use the system archetypes as a good place to identify the sign of common traps. If you are interested in archetypes common in education, check out the work of my colleague, Susan Fairchild’s, here.)

After thinking of potential system traps, you can then ask, “What about our common reactions might be the equivalent of staying on a hamster wheel?” You’ll probably find these reactions lower in Donella Meadows’ list of leverage points.

Finally, begin exploring higher leverage points in the list.

“What might an upstream focus look like?”
“Is there some goal or reward in the system that’s continuing to push this behavior?”
“How might shifting the way information is shared – what type and with whom – improve performance?”
“And is there a mindset that keeps us stuck – stuck with trying the same old things or only looking for solutions in the same place(s)?”

Because you wouldn’t want to be like the guy under the street light, only expending effort to look for a solution in the one place where you are certain the solution doesn’t exist.

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