A roadmap for catalysts

Every person—student, consultant, employee, volunteer, hobbyist—tasked with working on or in a system—wholly human, wholly machine, hybrid—has access to a range of leverage points. 

Donella Meadows laid out perhaps the most perennial list of these leverage points some years ago in her book, Thinking in Systems. The most critical section of the book is free to read as an article: Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The leverage points are listed in the article in order of increasing effectiveness. They are:

  • Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
  • The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
  • The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
  • The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
  • The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
  • The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
  • The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
  • The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
  • The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
  • The goals of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Someone seeking to insert verb a system would be, presumably, focus on the more powerful leverage points—paradigms, goals, architecture alterations etc. (for examples of each leverage point consult the article). However, before these points can be leveraged they must be learned. Comprehended. Understood.

Learning them gets easier when the above leverage points are likened to Stewart Brand’s pace layers. Brand considered there to be six interconnected layers. Listed in order of decreasing tempo/rate of change, they are:

  • Fashion/art
  • Commerce
  • Infrastructure
  • Governance
  • Culture
  • Nature

Now consider the following passage from the same article linked above:

“In recent years a few scientists (such as R. V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling) have been probing the same issue in ecological systems: how do they manage change, how do they absorb and incorporate shocks? The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change-rates and different scales of size. Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle, these systems yield as if they were soft. Some parts respond quickly to the shock, allowing slower parts to ignore the shock and maintain their steady duties of system continuity.

Consider the differently paced components to be layers. Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:

Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.

As you can see, certain attributes of Brand’s pace layers are shared by Meadow’s leverage points. Of particular importance: the ineffective leverage points—e.g. constants, parameters, numbers—can be grokked quicker than the effective leverage points—e.g. paradigms. This is because increases in a thing’s rate of observable change lessens the time an observer requires to comprehend said thing. The cycles of fashion/art can be comprehended faster than the cycles of nature; paradigms are less mutable than metrics.

The consequence for someone tasked with working on or in a system is relatively simple: intimacy with the lesser leverage points within a system precedes intimacy with the greater leverage points within a system. The smaller levers of a system can be and will be known before the larger ones are.

Fortunately, Meadow’s list provides a sort of roadmap for catalysts. A checklist for expedited system comprehension. It’s not possible to encounter a new system and immediately comprehend its paradigm(s). But it is possible to incrementally and sequentially work through Meadow’s list to get to maximum potential system leverage. Working strictly in that order will probably yield maximum leverage in the minimum possible time, too.

Equating Meadow’s leverage points to Brand’s pace layers and seeing the former as a roadmap also contextualises an article featured in the Magnificent Seven a while back: What do executives do, anyway? In the article, Avery Pennarun says:

“…the job of an executive is: to define and enforce culture and values for their whole organization, and to ratify good decisions.

That’s all.

Not to decide. Not to break ties. Not to set strategy. Not to be the expert on every, or any topic. Just to sit in the room while the right people make good decisions in alignment with their values. And if they do, to endorse it. And if they don’t, to send them back to try again.”

An executive often has a mandate to work at the level of system paradigms. More generally, the loftier the position a person has the higher up the list of leverage points their work mandate should be. As an example, consider a factory. An operative is responsible for a constant level of production; a planner mitigates and manages delays arising from production disruption; a department head manages the information flows and incentives associated with productivity; a managing director sets the paradigm(s) everyone operates in.

Done poorly, consistent work at the highest leverage point within a system involves a lot of “leadering”. Quoting Venkatesh Rao’s The Art of Agile Leadership:

“Leadering is the art of creating a self-serving account of whatever is already happening, and inserting yourself into it in a prominent role. This requires doing things that don’t mess with success (and the baseline for success is continued survival), but allow you to take credit for it. Successful companies might have only about five minutes of actual leading in their stories, but they have hour after endless hour of leadering.”

This leadering is enabled by the person’s unfamiliarity with all other leverage points apart from the one they are mandated to work at. Worse, no leverage is ever actually exerted by the person. Think of the emptiest of suits you’ve ever met.

Done well, consistent work at the highest leverage points within a system doesn’t look like much work at all. Ideally, that person—let’s call them a “catalyst”—doing that work has intimacy with every leverage point within the system, much like an author is expected to understand how beats roll into scenes into chapters into acts and into a coherent narrative

Done well, a catalyst seeking to exert high agency within a system sits—like a meta-rationalist—above the system and its paradigms. Occasionally, the catalyst is required to “lead” (Venkat again):

“See, the difference between leading and leadering is that leading is an extraordinarily rare event: one person getting it right for 20 seconds instead of 5 seconds. And in those 20 seconds, getting enough right, and getting it right enough, that the precious, gooey rightness can beshared with others. When some of this precious, gooey shared rightness gives an entire group a bit of an edge for a while, we call it leading.

Given the default randomness of the human condition, and the extreme power of compound interest, a little bit of leading goes a long way. Many thriving corporations, for instance, live out their entire lifespans fueled by about five minutes of actual leadership. Sometimes those five minutes can even be attributed to the person who later graduates to full-time leadering.”

Most of the time—when not “leading”—a catalyst is simply required to be present and ask questions. In terms of Meadow’s leverage points, though, a catalyst’s “leading” is focused on paradigms. Sustaining them; identifying their decline; selecting and evaluating alternatives; initiating a timely and effective transition.

This sounds like difficult work (even if it is scarce); it is difficult and it always will be. It’s why we rely on punctuated equilibrium instead of innovation in perpetuity. However—and it’s taken me a long time to realise this—Meadow’s leverage points provide a guide that makes the work a little bit simpler and a little more accessible. A democratised art, instead of a dark one.