Leverage Points in Systemic Change, an Empirical Evaluation of Meadows Taxonomy

E John Vodonick


A system intervention is usually done with the view of changing some aspect of the system. That aspect might be the boundary of the system, the desired results of the system, the ability to apply a given set of metrics to the system or some other aspect.  The nature of the intervention is always a matter of delicate selection.

Systems practitioners eventually learn that certain leverage points exist in all systems that can be used to initiate change in the system and thus avoid the frustrating effort of attempting to 'muscle" the system into a state of change.  Of course the understanding of the existence of leverage points is really just the surface of the problem; the crux of the thing is the identification of the various leverage points in the system and the attempt to have some understanding of the possible unintended consequences of an intervention of that system through the adjustment of the identified leverage points.


Meadows developed taxonomy of systemic intervention points in 1999. Those intervention points are arranged from the one with the smallest overall effect such as changing constants, parameters and numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)to that having the most dramatic effect upon the system; changing the ability to transcend paradigms. As of 2012 this taxonomy had not been subject to empirical validation. During a two year period three different cohousing communities were studied for the purpose of exploring the dynamic of the ethical change. The data collected was analyzed and various themes were developed. Pivotal ethical moments were identified and the leverage point in each change was distinguished and inspected for the effects of its application. This paper discusses systemic leverage points from the perspective of a larger study of ethical change within three cohousing communities that were studied over a two year period. Its purpose is to discover if Meadows taxonomy can be empirically validated as a useful tool to design a process of system intervention to achieve the greatest possible effect, or alternatively the least possible effect upon the system.

The communities that were studied were all located in the Northern California area of the United States and were selected through the process of snowball sampling as were the participants in the study. Data was collected though semi structured interviews and the personal observations of the researcher as well as an analysis of the public presentation of the various communities through their websites. The data that was collected was coded using Atlas.ti and themes developed from that data, in part focusing upon Meadows model.

This paper is divided into an exposition of the various research sites and major pivotal moments within the sites. Those pivotal moments are then examined from the viewpoint of Meadows' twelve leverage points to determine if the data supports that model. Conclusions from the examination are drawn and suggestions for further research are made.



Intervention, Leverage points, Change, , Meadows

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