A Leverage Points Framework for Systems-shifting product management

Systems-shifting product management builds on the work of systems-shifting design which moves away from user centred practices in order to affect change by effecting systems.

How might product management use a Leverage Points Framework

Based on the Center for Humane Technology’s Leverage Points Framework, which is based on Donella Meadows ‘12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System‘, here is version 0.1 of the Systems-shifting product management Leverage Points Framework.

A Leverage Points Framework for Systems-shifting product management

The core concept of a leverage framework is to illustrate that there are multiple points at which leverage can be applied to achieve an outcome, that depending on where on the lever the leverage point is the more or less effect it will have on the outcome, and that multiple leverage points can be used together to increase achieving the outcome.

1 – User action. Leverage applied here is about providing the means for a user to perform an action.

2 – Feature. Leverage at this point involves change to existing or new features in an attempt to achieve the outcome.

3 – Product. Product-wide changes or new products utilise leverage at this level.

4 – Business model. Changing business models applies leverage at this point on the lever.

5 – Organisation. Changes within an organisation can have high leverage on outcomes.

6 – Culture. Changing the culture has the highest leverage in achieving an outcome.

What might that look like in practice?

Example: Let’s saying we’re looking for ways to reduce misinformation on Twitter.

The lowest leverage change that could be made would be to introduce something that relies on a user action for achieving the outcome. That could be something like displaying a message asking the user if they want to read an article before they retweet it. Low leverage changes are quick to introduce but find it extremely difficult to achieve the outcome alone.

The second point on the framework is to introduce a feature that aims to achieve the outcome. This is higher leverage than point one as it is always available for all users and doesn’t rely on a user action. For our example this could be changing the algorithm to reduce the reach of retweets with links so that fewer people then click on and read the article.

Point three is at the product level. This means either wholesale changes to an existing product or a new product. For the purposes of this example lets imagine a very different Twitter where the algorithm tries to keep users in bubbles, reduces the number tweets in users’ timeline that are counter to views they’ve shared, or anonymises content to expose users to different perspectives but prevents the originator from being attacked for expressing them.

Point four is about how changing the business model can achieve the outcome. Twitter relies on driving user engagement in order to create ad spend in order to generate revenue. If social media sites over a certain size were considered a public good and part of the essential infrastructure of countries there could be an argument for governments contributing to revenue in return for Twitter reducing the need for increasing user engagement with certain types of content.

Five is leverage at the organisational level and could include changes to the company structure, incentives that drive behaviours, success measures, the diversity of people working there, how inclusive open to different points-of-view the corporate culture is.

The sixth and highest level point of leverage is to change the culture. This means changing what society considers acceptable behaviour, legislating against certain organisations and public figures to prevent misinformation, or putting memes to work against misinformation.

Or a simpler example: increase revenue.

  1. Send a user more emails, so they click more links, and buy more stuff.
  2. Introduce a feature that users pay more for.
  3. Introduce a product that solves a different problem, and which users pay for.
  4. Change the business model. Move upstream in the value chain, e.g. from buying something from another business to producing that thing that other businesses buy from you.
  5. Restructure the organisation to downsize departments with higher costs.
  6. Change the culture, create a trend so that more people desire what you produce.

Why do product managers struggle to achieve outcomes?

Because they almost always work at the lower levels of the lever. Why do product managers work at the lower levels? Because organisations often really don’t want to change in order to achieve outcomes, especially if they feel they are succeeding with their current features, products, business models, organisational structures and cultural view of the world.

Not only is is hard to do, it’s also difficult to be sure you’ll achieve the desired outcome. Any action in a complex system will have unintended consequences, but higher leverage changes are more likely to have vastly disconnected consequences which are impossible to tie back to the change.