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Systems thinking allows us to use small changes to create dramatic effects

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systems thinking allows us to use small changes to create dramatic effects

Scott Miker

When we study systems thinking, one of the things that we find is that there are leverage points within a system.  Leverage points are the crucial elements that, when changed, create a major change in system output.

The current way we drive a car represents using many leverage points.  Instead of having to get out and use all our might to turn the tires, we simply use our power steering and put little effort to get the tires to turn.  The power steering system represents a leverage point.  It leverages our strength so that we can do more (move the tires) with less effort (because of the power steering system). 

But when we go about solving problems or trying to improve, we rarely turn to leverage points.  Instead, we look for shortcuts.   

Shortcuts are usually options to take that represent a quick fix to the symptoms of the problem but almost always result in later phenomena that are problematic.   

So when we want more money and have a friend who provides insider trader we can take the information and use it to have a quick financial windfall.  But this shortcut to more money will also provide additional risk due the illegal nature of this activity.  In the future you may end up with less money due to this strategy than more

In addition, it could result in consequences unrelated to money.  We could get prosecuted and put in jail for our actions.  Then we lose our dignity and freedom, even though we gained more money from the actions.

As we set out on our journey to improve in life, we have to be able to start to see the difference between shortcuts and leverage points.  We should focus on avoiding shortcuts and instead put our effort on manipulating leverage points in the system. 

In The Systems View of Life, by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, the authors state, “In linear systems, small changes produce small effects, and large effects are due either to large changes or to a sum of many small changes.  In nonlinear systems, to contrast, small changes may have dramatic effects because they may be amplified repeatedly by self-reinforcing feedback.  Such nonlinear feedback processes are the basis of the instabilities and the sudden emergence of new forms of order that are so characteristic of self-organization.”

When it comes to improvement, often the first step is to move away from shortcuts and the quick, fleeting bursts of motivation and effort and move towards very small elements that can start to form patterns.  This gives the “large changes” being a “sum of many small changes” that the authors discuss. 

Then the next step is to start to identify leverage points and feedback loops.  By gaining the foundation of repeated action towards a goal and then combining it with nonlinear actions, you can effectively create new “forms of order”.   

If you have been using the systems and habits approach to improvement for a while and are seeing slow, steady improvement, you are probably ready to identify leverage points in the system.  Then, look for ways to adjust those points to increase the results to see if a small change can then result in major improvement. 

What are the things that you can do, or that could happen to you, that would result in significant increase in the outcome you are striving for?  Those are likely the very leverage points that should now be explored to see if there is a way to make small changes that “have dramatic effects because they may be amplified repeatedly by self-reinforcing feedback”.