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Conditions for Intervening in a System

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A widely shared,  mind-opening commentary is “Places to Intervene in a System,” by the late Dana Meadows.   Framed as the learning process of a systems scientist and passionate communicator, this piece explores the many approaches to changing systems – whether they are economic, political, social, familial, whatever. Her “aha” moment is described beautifully and honestly in the full paper.  As I understand it, the progression is from “dumb” interventions that achieve change only when they are continuously enforced and heeded, to “smart” ones that engage members of the system as partners and agents of change.

With apology for a little bit of systems analysis lingo, here is the list of “places,” as Dana developed it:

Places to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness)

12. Constants, parameters and numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards);

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows;

10.  The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks,  population age structures)

9.  The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change

8.   The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against;

7.  The gain around driving positive feedback loops;

6.  The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)

5.  The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments and constraints)

4.  The power to add, change, evolve or self-organize system structure;

3. The goals of the system;

2.  The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises;

1.  The power to transcend paradigms.

In my own quest for effective leadership, and for the language to guide students and volunteers, I have delved into many psychosocial disciplines including the psychologies of group loyalty and dissent, social movement participation, social diffusion of innovations and community-based social marketing…. and the psychologies of altruism and prosocial behavior, peak performance, and organizational learning (that magic by which learning happens, not only for individuals in their knowledge-intensive silos, but for organizations that are able to turn shared understanding into nimble adaptation).  I cobbled together a Ph.D. thesis on the phenomenon of “social capital” – best understood as the glue of trust and shared norms, that holds societies and economies together without overly constraining individuals.

From this exploration, I want to propose some aspects of social and organizational systems that make any intervention as effective as it can be:
1.  Receptivity of the audience
a. salience of the issue (is it hot?)
b. perceived relevance of the issue (Is it hot for me and those I care about?)

c. audience’s literacy on the issue (understanding enough about exponential growth, for example, to be worried if a glacier is melting or a new pattern of storms is emerging)

d. absorptive capacity of the audience (ability of individuals to assimilate new ideas – aka “bandwidth”)
e. community channels of communication (ability of community as a whole to assimilate new ideas by bringing them into a common forum or forums)

2.  Fit of the messenger and the message
a. Familiarity of the messenger
b. Perceived credibility of the messenger – both authority and integrity

c.  Cultural fit of the messenger

I am certain there are other dimensions of this, and details to be added to this discussion.  With apologies to any perfectionists who may read this, I am going to take advantage of blog format to share it in this embryonic form and ask the world for comments!

Written by melissaeverett

August 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Commentary