The importance of vision for systemic change

How do we act on complex systems to induce positive changes ? Inspired by systems thinker Donella Meadows, this article discusses the importance of changing the vision/story as a prerequisite for any systemic change to occur.

We live in systems

Although we see problems in the world, in our organizations, why is it so difficult for any effective change to happen ?

Whether we a look at , a human organization, such as a company, an NGO, an ecosystem or the whole world, we are looking at highly complex systems where traditional linear views cause and effect just don’t work.

Over the last century, Systems thinking has emerged as a way to better understand our world than the traditional cartesian/mecanistic views.

Systems thinking has been applied to problem solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.

In systems science, it is argued that the only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs and persists is to understand the parts in relation to the whole. Standing in contrast to Descartes’s scientific reductionism and philosophical analysis, it proposes to view systems in a holistic manner. Consistent with systems philosophy, systems thinking concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system. Wikipedia


Leverage point to induce changes in systems

In a long and thoughtful article, systems thinker Donella Meadows discussed how folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.”

These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.

She proposed and described a list of leverage points in increasing order of effectiveness:


(in increasing order of effectiveness)

12. Constants, parameters, 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 information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, 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 — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.

Read more: Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

One key idea is that to change a system, tweaking parameters is unlikely to have a huge effect, whereas changing the mindset of which the system arise is one of the most powerful leverage point.

Envisioning change

That’s why changing the vision is a prequisite for any real/relevant change in a complex system.

In a brilliant and moving talk, Donella Meadows highlight the importance of envisionning change for it to happen. The talk focus on change for sustainability but is highly relevant for any system’s transformational change.


A transcript of the talk is available, here’s a summary:

Vision is the most vital step in the policy process. If we don’t know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make great progress. Yet vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our whole culture. We talk about our fears, frustrations, and doubts endlessly, but we talk only rarely and with embarrassment about our dreams. Environmentalists have been especially ineffective in creating any shared vision of the world they are working toward — a sustainable world in which people live within nature in a way that meets human needs while not degrading natural systems. Hardly anyone can imagine that world, especially not as a world they’d actively like to live in. The process of building a responsible vision of a sustainable world is not a rational one. It comes from values, not logic. Envisioning is a skill that can be developed, like any other human skill. This paper indicates how.

Full transcript


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