Dials and Knobs

When most of us want to change something, the first thing we instinctively reach for are things like the budgets, policies, subcommittees, and org charts. Think: what are the easiest to reach ‘faucets’ and ‘drains’ around you? What are the ‘dials’ can you turn by striking a working group?

When governments want to change things, they often do it by adjusting tax rates or tariffs for this or that. The minimum wage is a popular number to change, too. We love adjusting numbers and budget allocations in the name of changing the system. But to what extent does changing numbers change behaviour?

“Let’s adjust the budget!” is often the first thing that comes to mind when we want to incite change. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t often tend to yield a very significant impact. “Diddling with the details, arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” according to Donella Meadows.

It is a little bit like adjusting the faucets on your personal bathtub and expecting it to affect the temperature in your neighbour’s shower. Fiddling with the particularities of your organization’s plumbing does not make much of a difference to the contents of much bigger ‘bathtubs’ of things like affordable housing waitlists, crime rates, literacy scores, air quality, etc.

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Dials and Knobs' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on October 21, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17108
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