Law #8: Small Changes can Produce Big Results But the Areas of Highest Leverage are often the Least Obvious

The concept of leverage is one of the most powerful in all of science.

It is the small changes, not the big ones that create significant results. Think levers. In principle, a lever allows you to use less force to lift or move objects. We may not know it, but we apply this theory in a lot of the everyday objects we use, such as scissors, bottle openers and even doors.

Archimedes proved the Law of the Lever and applied the law in a variety of inventions. Historian John Tzetzes, writing in the 12th century, wrote that Archimedes said: “Give me a place to stand, and with a lever I will move the world.”

We are used to the big bang concepts. So we have grown up believing that unless we go big, don’t do anything at all. Bring in the big guns. Politicians. Celebrities. Musicians. Dish out freebies. Frills and thrills. Scandals. Millions have made big bucks when all rides on that wave.

However, with systemic thinking, to bring about change (that which does not go back to its original state), it is not the big changes that produce the big results. It is the small ones that do.

A great example of small, counterintuitive actions are the use of insects to control insects. Farmers introduce wasps in many a greenhouse as a way to control other insects that feed on the greenhouse crop. Brilliant. Effective. Just not the most intuitive solution. Think of the thousands you would have spent otherwise.

Senge (1990) quotes Buckminster Fuller’s illustration of the principle of the leverage, through a trim tab. A trim tab is a small “rudder on a rudder” of a ship or plane. It is tiny, and its role is to make it easier to turn the rudder which, in turn, makes it easier to turn the ship. The larger the boat, the more critical is the trim tab.

In the event of an emergency and the ship needs to turn around far quicker to avoid an accident, it is the trim tab that comes to the rescue. Small changes can produce significant results, but the area of highest leverage is often the least obvious. Who would have thought that’s where the change should be? And so, tiny at that!

So, the key to this law is not just the effectiveness of the trim tab – but that it is not an obvious solution.

Therefore, the key to applying this law is three parts:

  • To use leverage in a system is knowing the structure of the system. First we ‘see and understand’ the underlying structures (either that of the system archetypes or the onion) of the systemic issue we are handling;
  • Second, notice our attention today to the parts of the structure that we are not paying attention to;
  • Thirdly, identify the ones that are the least obvious to all. Do a simple straw-poll, to ‘see’ what the trims tabs would be. Sometimes, not seeing the entire structure as a whole, by all, is not apparent and therefore is of the highest leverage. Changes are immediate when the mind grasps the whole. At that point, any delay is removed.

Consider the urgent file case study.

What is its trim tab? Notice the process you use to arrive at the systemic intervention. Notice also, how much does it cost?