My guest in this episode is Ariba Jahan – also known as আরিবা – a biomechanical engineer turned innovation and design strategist focused on creating social impact and a future that is more accessible, intersectional and equitable.
Ariba is currently the Director of Innovation at the Ad Council, where she established the organization’s design innovation practice. As a member of the Ad Council’s DEI Council, she also leads efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at the organization.
Ariba spoke about her own journey into design, the assumptions often made in DEI initiatives, the need to ask not just “what new things can we do?” but “how did we get here in the first place?”, as well as managing resilience in challenging times.
N.B. This transcript is partially AI-generated, so there may be a few errors.
Andy Polaine: [00:00:00] Hi and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, from thoughtful detail to society and the world, and about interesting people in their personal journeys. My name is Andy Polaine, I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach, trainer, and writer.
My guest today is Ariba Jahan, a biomedical engineer, turned innovation and product leader focused on creating social impact. She’s currently the director of innovation at the ad council where she established the organisations innovation practice.
Ariba, welcome to Power of Ten.
Ariba Jahan: [00:00:49] Hi, so excited to be here. Thank you so much. Andy, for having me here today with you.
Andy Polaine: [00:00:56] So, you’ve got this journey, this interesting background. I’m always fascinated by people. who started doing one thing and then kind of done a, a pivot as they say, into design and innovation.
So can you tell me a little bit about your journey from, from, you know, from there to here?
Ariba Jahan: [00:01:12] Sure. Um, it’s interesting because you know, back then, when I was in, When I was studying biomechanical engineering in undergrad, I think like education systems and career path were very, like one track only.
Um, and now everyone has so many different pivots and multi-experiences. It’s really inspiring to be able to, see that. And and I think it always helps me. So, I grew up in New York city. I was born in Bangladesh, but grew up in New York city since I was uh, seven years old. And science and math was, were always my favorite subjects.
So when it came to time in junior high school, I wanted to start pursuing more specifically in the sciences. And so I went to Brooklyn tech high school majored in biomedical sciences. So I, I went to a high school that had majors. And from then I got exposed to. this space called biomechanics, or like bioengineering.
So I pursued that at Syracuse university, biomechanical engineering. And I think at that time, maybe, maybe by my second year I was like, okay, I wanna be a doctor. You know, I wanna, I wanna, apply. I wanna be in the room with the patients when they’re making the decisions for adopting this new technology into, into their body.
And that, and that happened to, that happened, because just backing up for a second, since my second year of high school, I always participated in like research projects and, summer programs. So, REU, I’m gonna mess this up. I don’t remember what the acronym even stands for now. Like it’s R is definitely research.
Andy Polaine: [00:03:11] Okay.
Ariba Jahan: [00:03:11] I don’t know what the rest of it. Oh, it’s a, Oh, yes. So it’s a National Science Foundation Program, but it’s a program that’s there to help high school students be exposed to PhD level research projects by working in labs. Um, so I did that all, Sophomore to senior year in in my high school. And, I mean that changed my life.
Being able to see like the science and application, and seeing how research really fundamentally changes the things that are made and created. And I think in one of those lab projects where, the project was all about, a device that was there that was being created to help people with, Deafness, not in the mechanical sense, but like neurological sense.
Like the the brain just doesn’t connect the sounds. And I remember being in being in that lab and I was like, Oh, I wanna, I really wanna help the patients make this decision. Um, I’m sure. You didn’t need that whole long story, but and it’s in that moment that I, pivoted from wanting to apply to science in the lab setting, per se only versus like wanting to be in medical school.
Then I went to medical school. I, went to SUNY upstate medical university, which is also in Syracuse, New York. And, I didn’t, [laughs], I didn’t enjoy it.
Andy Polaine: [00:04:40] [laughs] Okay.
Ariba Jahan: [00:04:40] I think, I think I thought it was going to be amazing. I thought I was going to be crushing it. Um, you know, I was pretty much barely passing [laughs] and I’m glad I can laugh about this now, because it was not funny back then.
It was just earth shattering for me. If you can imagine the, the journey you go on to even be pre-med right.
Andy Polaine: [00:05:10] Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty long, right?
Ariba Jahan: [00:05:11] I think the biggest click for me in, in hindsight, the click is definitely, always hindsight. I’m not a memoriser. Uh, I’m much more of an engineer. Um, that’s why biomechanical engineering worked for me and and it was great.
So, I, I think second year or third year of medical I was like, okay, this is not working out so well. Um, I don’t know how many times I can give this a go. So I left Syracuse, I left medical school and I came to New York and I was like, okay, let’s figure this out. And at that point, I started getting on a lot of phone interviews with people something like, so what else do people do?
[laughs] And I think I had to kind of go through my own journey uh, with listening, with listening to advice. Um, a lot of said to go into teaching or go into bio, biotechnology since I’m leaving medical school. But I kinda didn’t want to be in a lab per se. I wanted to be, I, I didn’t, I don’t think I knew exactly what I wanted, but I knew I wanted to be in a space where I got to engage more with people.
So I started working at a startup, which exposed me to what the hell a startup is [laughs], and understanding that. There’s business operations and product management and all those things. And then I got into product management Um, and, and product management is, the bridge that brought me into ad council. So once I was doing product management, I wanted to use those skills for social impact.
And that kind of became my transition into ad council. And then I think in my second year, Anastasia, who’s my manager. her And I, she was already looking into like, what does innovation look like at the ad council? And so her and I, and many other, senior team members, we worked on exploring that. And then we kind of created an experiment of creating my role.
Andy Polaine: [00:07:18] Right. So, and you’re still there.
Ariba Jahan: [00:07:20] Yeah. [laughs].
Andy Polaine: [00:07:21] So that’s obviously worked. Um, but sort of, there’s a seed in there. I think of well at least it sounds like there’s a seed, there was a seed in there of, you know, being interested about how. The human experience of technology of some kind, I guess, and, and wanting to, have some kind of sense of what’s the human impact of this, this technology, whether that was in your kind of, you know, med school days or, engineer, biomedical mechanical engineering days through to the work you’re doing now, is that, is that true? Where there’s a sort of desire to… is that where the sort of social impact thread runs through?
Ariba Jahan: [00:08:01] I think so. I’m, so impressed that you picked up on that. I never knew what social impact was, right. Like I think social impact is, more of newer area of exploration, I think. And when I say newer, I mean, nowadays I think you do learn a lot about sustainability and social responsibility in college.
But like when I was in college, I didn’t really know about those things.
Andy Polaine: [00:09:09] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:09:10] But to your point, I always cared about the impact of a thing that I’m making or, a research that I’m doing on the larger scale, whether that’s. Larger being like the human that is going to impact larger scale being the system that is going to impact. And what other cogs are there? I think the first time I really saw how something you could be doing in a tool ends up impacting someone’s life experience was, I was designing, a, I was in a, I was doing a team project where we were designing. Um, or redesigning a device that’s used to, squeeze glue into lung tissue, after the lung tissue has been severed for…
Andy Polaine: [00:10:04] [laughs] That sounds horrible.
Ariba Jahan: [00:10:06] [laughs] … so, cardiothoracic surgery you know, when someone has lung cancer and they have to, cut away a bit of the lung tissue, they need to be able to use a seal. Uh, to seal that tissue and, our, our team project was to redesign that sealant, distribution device. Um, so that it’s easier. So then, what was interesting was, you know, we all sat down and we were like, Oh crap, we need to learn 3d modelling, like, okay, cool.
Go learn that, we looked at like the patents and we, and we looked at all the research that informed it. And then I was like, you know, I, I think I’m gonna go find out if I can go watch the cardiothoracic surgeon do this. And, so she was like, yeah, come on. And, and what’s great is, she was pretty much as tall as me, which means we were tiny people.
She’s I’m 4'11" and a half. And I think she might’ve been the same. So what was interesting was like, Getting into the surgery. Um, the, or, and then she needed to stand on like two boosters, two step stools stacked.
Andy Polaine: [00:11:19] [laughs].
Ariba Jahan: [00:11:19] And so did I, [laughs]. and then I noticed how, because she’s shorter, her arm is shorter. So then her lever is, is different than, than someone who’s taller.
So um, and she’s doing the surgery for about five, six hours. So by the time she’s applying the sealant, it’s like, The fifth hour in that surgery. So I think that was the first time where I took learnings from like being with her and then back to the design. And then, you know, I remember feeling like, Oh, this is really interesting.
Like in classrooms you learn the things, but then being able to like witness her and then seeing how tired her arm got, or like, how was the, the nurse in the surgery or, preparing. the, preparing the sealant and preparing the mechanisms. And I think that was the first time realizing, like there is this holistic way of looking at this.
And I think look, there are people who do this for a living and, and they do this all the time, but that was my, I think that was the moment where I really realized it. And I think, you know, that part of my mindset has always been there. Um, I just don’t think I knew that was about. User research or you know, social impact.
I think the social impact part came when I was working in, in the, in the startup area, I wanted to work on products that had a larger impact in society. Um, and I didn’t really know where to find that and then came across ad council as an organization. And I was really just surprised that that existed.
Andy Polaine: [00:13:00] And so, you know, part of the social impact, you know, we’ve we talked about it before we were recording was also around equity and inclusion.
Ariba Jahan: [00:13:09] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Andy Polaine: [00:13:09] And you know, one of the things you said, which really stuck with me was this idea of kind of obviously since black lives matter, which has been around for several years, but it’s had this kind of huge impact this year and we’re just recording at the end of 2020, Is that there’s a lot of kinda conversations about, you know, what we should be doing and doing in the future and so forth, but less conversation around less reflection on what led us structurally to be at this moment where we actually needed to do something.
So can you tell me a little about, about your, your thoughts on this and where you, where you’ve been kind of working?
Ariba Jahan: [00:13:50] Yeah. I mean, to be honest, even my own role in upholding white supremacy culture, right? I think for me this year, became, about like just learning my own role in it too and understanding like, even if I’m a POC, I can still be upholding white supremacy, culture and systemic racism. And I think a big part of it is a culture of assimilation, right?
So I’m an immigrant. So I came here when I was seven years old. And before I came here, you know, the American culture is glorified in, in Bangladesh. It’s all about like, you know, when we were immigrating here, everyone was just so happy for us and jealous of us. And there’s a sense of already putting, America and whiteness on the pedestal. So when you come here, or not you… I’ll just speak for my own [laughs] experience, beccause I don’t think all immigrants necessarily have the same experience.
Andy Polaine: [00:14:59] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Ariba Jahan: [00:15:00] I think immediately, seeing so much diversity and then honestly being treated differently since third grade. Like you just learn. Oh, okay. I am different. You know? Um, I was, I remember, one of the. Creative, insult I used to get was, Oh, you have HBO.
And I was like, Oh no, no, we don’t. We can’t afford HBO. HBO stood for “Hindu body odor” And so it was like, my first exposure was, that I can be treated differently just because of where I’m from.
Andy Polaine: [00:15:38] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:15:38] And and that was my first exposure to uh, racism. Um, And, you know, there’s levels to that. That’s just cruel and and kids being kids
Andy Polaine: [00:15:46] Yeah, yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:15:47] and um, not being able to talk about it at home meant that I need to somehow process it all on my own and not really have context into what it is.
And I think those are the types of moments that create survival mechanisms, or at least for me, it did where I was just like, okay, well, I can’t change my skin color. What are all the other ways I can tuck myself away and hide? And, it’s when I came to America, you know, going through the school health examination kinda system and process that we discovered, I’m, I’m half deaf. I say half because I have complete hearing loss in my right ear.
Andy Polaine: [00:16:26] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:16:27] And, the only health insurance we had was my dad’s worker compensation. Worker comp, I think that’s what it’s called, which is really, really limited. Like it, whatever is the state of the art innovation is not what that’s going to give.
Andy Polaine: [00:16:43] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:16:44] And, I forgot where I was going. Oh yes. So I think, I was then getting mocked for my disability and my teachers, you know, were Very worried about the, [laughs], my ambitions, you know, my guidance counsel in junior high school, when she learned that I wanted to go into one of the specialized science high schools in New York, she was very quick to say, you know, we should consider some sort of a vocational school or some sort of a uh, specialized school for the deaf for you.
And I was literally in front of her. Like, I can talk, I can hear you. I don’t understand, you know, I’m learning sign language. I’ll be fine. And then I ended up forging my mom’s signature just to be able to take that specialized science high school test. And that was my decision, like the night before of the test.
So I didn’t even get a chance to study. Um, and you know, when you immigrate here, you kind of just assume everyone else knows best. You assume the guidance counselor knows best. You assume your teachers know best. And my mom and my dad, you know, they were so busy with so many jobs. That I really couldn’t have that conversation with them, but I think it’s those types of experiences that taught me.
You have to assimilate or else someone is going to make assumptions about your capabilities and limit what you have access to. But I think that moment I stopped wearing my hearing aids. I knew I couldn’t change my skin color and and not that I ever should have. And in hindsight, How dare my guidance counselor tell me I can’t do, I can’t pursue a career in STEM because of my hearing loss. Right?
Andy Polaine: [00:18:27] Yeah, absolutely.
Ariba Jahan: [00:18:27] Like that feels insane. Um, but, I, but I think those things taught me to assimilate. And now I think, you know, I’m sad to say that I have to do a lot of that unlearning ‘cause when I assimilate, I uphold, racist cultures, I uphold, systems designed against us,
Andy Polaine: [00:18:46] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:18:47] You know, and I think I’m trying to think about even in DEI initiatives, how do we go beyond just like diversity? You know, it’s, it’s sad to say DEI overall diversity has been a topic. of extreme popularity for many years now, but there’s still companies that haven’t done. Diversity. They have a five year, 10 year strategy for diversity, and it’s like, all you have to do is hire.
There’s no pipeline problem. The talent is out there. Why do you need a 10 year strategy for it? And then. You know, attrition happens, you know, so it’s just like, Oh, well, they come and they leave. And it’s like, well then have you created the conditions for diversity to actually thrive here? If your structural, if your organization, you know, each organization is an institution all by itself where it has its own systems, it has its own structure.
It has its own norms and culture. And all of those things have to be interrogated before you can just like, bring. A new pool of diversity, you know? Um, and I think that’s the part that I would love to see more work in.
Andy Polaine: [00:19:55] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Ariba Jahan: [00:19:55] I know there are many people who are advancing that work. I just wanna see it more.
Andy Polaine: [00:20:02] So, I mean, the word initiative in itself sort of almost paints the problem. Right? Which is that this is, a new thing we’re going to do. You know, and it’s an initiative, as you said, you know, this is gonna roll out over several years.
Ariba Jahan: [00:20:17] Right.
Andy Polaine: [00:20:17] Rather than a self reflection and an unpacking of…
Ariba Jahan: [00:20:23] How do we get here?
Andy Polaine: [00:20:23] …the situation we’re currently. Yeah. How did we get here? Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:20:25] Like what structure, you know. So you wanna hire diversity. Okay. So why wasn’t it already diverse? What are the things that got in the way?
Andy Polaine: [00:20:38] Exactly, yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:20:38] Are those things still present? How are you planning to get rid of those things? And some, sometimes that means really interrogating the structures of the reward systems inside the organizations.
How are promotions happening? How, how’s hiring and recruiting happening? How’s who, Who has the most power informally as well as formally, you know? Um, and I think those are, those are the reasons a lot of times, you know, something becomes a huge priority. Um, and then we have a whiplash effect where it’s like, okay, great.
Now we gotta move onto the next priority. What are the few initiatives that we could launch so that, you know, it it’s a checklist. We can look back into 2020 and say, we’ve done the things.
Andy Polaine: [00:21:24] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:21:24] And you know, I keep hearing different people say, well, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And some people saying it’s a sprint, not a marathon.
And, And I’m not so sure if it has to be one or the other, you know, I think it’s looking at the longterm sustainability, not like what is the five year plan that we’re going to hit diversity. It’s more like, how are we not only creating. Diversity, but what are the things we’re planning to change in the organization so that diversity can be sustained over a long term and continuously thriving, right?
That’s two different things.
Andy Polaine: [00:22:00] Yeah. Yeah. There’s a, there’s an expression that often comes up in, in design, and innovation or in service design as well, and sort of, you know, co-design workshops and stuff, which is there are quick wins.
Ariba Jahan: [00:22:11] Hmm, mm-hmm [affirmative]
Andy Polaine: [00:22:11] But there’s also another one about brilliant basics and they often get conflated, you know, on one of those kinda two by two matrices of people are kinda mapping out and stuff and go, well, those are the quick wins.
You know, those were our brilliant basics and always can feel the need to say no brilliant basics are the under-wiring, the kind of the basics are actually the foundational stuff. And those things are anything but quick to change.
Ariba Jahan: [00:22:35] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Andy Polaine: [00:22:35] There are definitely things, um, I did write, I think about “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, but there’s definitely things that you can immediately do and should do.
But there are other things that are much more foundational and structural that take time, right? Cause you’re unpicking, it takes time to even work out what they are, let along kinda then unpacking, and and changing a culture and, and organizations in general, again, the word initiatives, you know, are terribly bad at, stopping doing stuff, you know, really good at starting doing new things.
but very bad at kinda stopping, doing existing things and kinda letting things go apart from, you know, they might shut down a department
Ariba Jahan: [00:23:13] Yeah.
Andy Polaine: [00:23:13] … and stuff in terms of kinda fundamental. Activities that are structurally part of the, the culture.
Ariba Jahan: [00:23:25] Uh, I was gonna say one thing that really adds to that is, is the fact that these conversations happen separately, it’s almost like, a- and and it’s happening separately in two different ways. One is, it’s almost like the DEI conversation it’s happening in room B. But business conversations are happening in room a and C you know, and it’s like why is it being compartmentalized and separate?
Andy Polaine: [00:23:51] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:23:51] ‘Cause I think when it’s like that, then you’re not actually creating long term structural changes. Um, and, and it’s okay if you don’t have answers, but it’s, you know, I think some initiatives are okay. You, you uh, like one example would be, if an initiative is to launch an ERG in your organization, Amazing make sure.
Then you think about, or, or do a little digging around what resources and support um, conditions are needed for that ERG to survive and thrive. Um, so that’s an initiative. Great. But then what is the long term and holistic change that you’re trying to create in the organization? Which the ERG is part of that, right?
Like, if you’re not sustaining diversity, then you’re gonna end up with an ERG that has zero members. So what was the point, you know, And I think because the conversations are happening separately, where we’re gonna have this group of people focus on DEI and that relieves the burden of DEI, prioritization off of everyone else.
So it automatically sends a queue through the organization. That DEI is important, but it’s only important for only a group of people to think about. And if they’re not also the same people that have decision making power within the organization, then um, then is it really going to create change or like, what is, you’re kind of creating the constraints of the impact it can have just by architecting it in that way.
And I think the other distinction or the other separate conversations I’m seeing is like, we’re not all in the same room. We’re not all like cross functionally having that dialogue in the industry, where uh, there’s like, Is there a marketing take on DEI as how they’re thinking about translating messages to, DEI, translating messages to their audience versus like, how does it play a role in product design?
How does it play a role in policy design? How does it play a role in, the onboarding of, into your product, or, or, where you think your product will thrive? You know, like it sometimes feels like every function is left to their own devices to interpret what DEI really means for them. And then to create priority decisions based on that. Versus I do wonder how incredible it could be if we were all doing it together and there might be organizations that are already doing it, and I’d love to know who they are, ‘cause I think there’s a lot to learn there.
Andy Polaine: [00:26:26] Yeah. I mean, there’s lots of parallels – we talked about this before, as well - between that and sustainability and the, the kind of joined up conversation is exactly what you need to make any impact there because you can’t be having an organization saying, well, we really kinda care about, you know, our contributions to climate change or being more sustainable.
And at the same time, our primary KPI is, is growth that uses resources and all the rest of it. Right?
Ariba Jahan: [00:26:53] Right.
Andy Polaine: [00:26:53] You can’t, you, you know, and again, it’s the same thing, which is not, what should we be doing it’s more? What should we stop doing? But also how did we get here in the first place and uh, out of those things, what, do we need to fundamentally change and stop doing otherwise, regardless of what we do, there’s this, I mean, you said it sort of before, there’s this, like it’ll start and you’ll get the kind of the initial, an initial surge, but the, the momentum of that other bigger thing is just kinda gradually kind of push it down to zero.
Ariba Jahan: [00:27:20] I really like that.
Ariba Jahan: [00:27:21] You said, what should we stop doing? I don’t know. I know teams probably have that as part of like their retro questions or like their, standup questions of like, thinking about.
What do they need to stop doing? But, I’m unclear on whether that question is being interrogated on, a, on a organization level, you know?
Andy Polaine: [00:27:47] Yeah, I don’t think so.
Ariba Jahan: [00:27:47] I think the other thing I think about is like values, right? Um, every organization has their own like pillars of capabilities as well as their values. Um, and I always wonder, like, is there, is there a, Is there a way to formulate those values where it’s like, what does it mean to be doing our work in those values? And what does it mean when we are actually doing things that’s against those values?
Andy Polaine: [00:28:17] Yeah, absolutely.
Ariba Jahan: [00:28:18] And values is like an easy, not an easy, but, I’m sure it’s actually really hard to put those things into writing. Um, but in terms of DEI, like. if Organizations create their own goals and value systems around those. uh, I would love to see, like, what does it mean to w what does it look like? What are the things we’re doing that actually hinders our DEI?
Andy Polaine: [00:28:42] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:28:42] So to your point about this bloating of work volume, that ends up happening when there’s like new priorities that’s created, on top of existing work. You know, there needs to be a little bit of a pause to be like, what are we doing right now?
That’s actually not in service to the, this DEI future that we wanna See, you know, there’s an amazing diagram uh, and I’m blanking on the person who created it. I stumbled upon it, you know? Um, there’s been so much sharing of anti-racism resources. Um, it’s a great diagram that shows like what’s the, phases of anti-racism.
What’s the phases you’ll go through to becoming an anti-racist organization. And I think it had like seven phases and I loved how it captured the nuances of like, you may end up in phase three, which looks like you’re saying all the right things. You have initiatives, but, but I mean, blankly put, it’s just performative.
And then, you know, phase seven is like, okay, your anti-racism, goals and pillars are really threaded throughout the whole ethos. Like it goes deep into the structural, basics of the organization. And I don’t know if everyone is sitting down and saying like, okay, let’s, let’s be real Where are we in these phases, you know?
And what’s causing us to be at this level. And what are the things we would have to interrogate and address in order to even get to level seven?
Andy Polaine: [00:30:26] Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. So, the other thing, you know, talking about this year, that we’ve, we’ve been kinda chatted about a little bit before is this year 2020, is the kind of year that’s going to go down in in history as a tough one for a lot of people.
Ariba Jahan: [00:30:44] Yeah.
Andy Polaine: [00:30:44] And uh, kinda feeling very depleted as well. Um, you know, which is. in how you’re dealing with, kinda how teams are, are feeling how they’re kind of their resilience, through the pandemic and, and, for, and their resilience of themselves and not just kind of shying up at any cost. How have you been working with with teams that way or talking with them about that?
Ariba Jahan: [00:31:12] Yeah. Um, I think for our organization, you know, we we’re based in New York and we are in person first and some people were remote and then just like everyone else, it just suddenly became, okay, we are remote until otherwise, you know, until further notice and there was no onboarding and I think many of us started, and we didn’t have like existing working norms that are designed around remote working. So I think there came a point where, what what I call pandemic productivity, which is like all of us working endlessly because work like, Work and personal life boundaries disappeared. And we also were trying to figure out like, how do I make sure people know that I’m doing work?
You know, so overcompensating and responding to every darn thing that comes your way, whether it’s email, Slack, test message. Um, and uh, and around, I don’t even remember what month it was, to be honest, I think it was may or June where I knew that I was about to lead a team, on a project. And I was very mindful.
I already knew that we were, that we had a high work volume at work, but I also knew at that point that we were hitting emotional burnout. Um, so for me, that’s when I started interrogating the difference between survival and resilience. Um, and I think survival is like, to your point is just showing up at any, any cost, you know, and often that cost is yourself.
And then resilience is is like, okay, how do I keep myself at least at 70% battery, and not lose myself to the red, at the end of this project.
Andy Polaine: [00:33:07] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:33:07] And the thing is when the pandemic hit, it interrupted all of us, whether you were already in survival mode or resilient mode before that. But like, if you were in a little bit of a resilient space, then at least you have a little bit of battery charge in you to come back.
And I think keeping that in mind, I started thinking about like, how do I create feedback loops with my team so that I know where they are? Cause I don’t, I barely know where I am day-to-day, you know?
Andy Polaine: [00:33:35] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:33:35] So we did rituals like check ins and check outs where I would just ask, like, what’s in your head space, what’s in your heart space.
And I think rituals like that, normalize, pausing. And normalize, talking about what’s going on and naming the things that’s happening that could be literally getting in the way of you showing up and then actually using that information too, if there’s been times where I shifted timelines, because I was like, okay, after I check in the team seemed like they are not in a head space to do more user interviews, you know?
And so we shifted it and, and I think that’s the part of it that mattered the most is, is step one is to just like, how do I even create the space for people to be honest about what’s in their head space and heart space. And part of that means like, for me to be really honest about how hard it is for me.
And then the second part is once they’re actually being that honest is honoring what their sharing and seeing what decisions can we change? I mean, what decisions can we make? What changes can we do so that. This is feasible. How do we maintain some feasible progress, but not at the cost of ourselves?
I think rituals like that really helped establish trust in our teams. Um, one thing I ended up learning was like, we were suddenly so video on that. One of my colleagues was like, Hey, when we’re just doing our own internal meetings, can we be video off? I would love to take a break from permanently smiling [laughing].
Andy Polaine: [00:35:15] That’s interesting, yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:35:15] so that, so that when we’re on the user interviews, I can kind of bring my full, like engaged self.
And that was hugely critical, right? Because we were doing a project on, unemployment benefit access. And here’s these individuals who are navigating the unemployment experience and giving us the gift of their time. So how do we honor that time? And. You know, if that means video off video off it is before that meeting.
If that means having a day of not being on interviews to take a break so that we’re better listeners, that’s what we’ll do. So I think like, I learned a lot from my team. I think sometimes there were moments where I was like, I don’t know what things I need to change. I don’t really know, like I’m supposed to have answers.
And then I realize I can’t have the answers, but I think I have to ask often enough or ask one-on-one and just be very open to hearing what needs they have, even if that needs like need, even if the need changes week to week, ‘Cause it just all felt very unpredictable.
Andy Polaine: [00:36:26] Yeah, it’s true. It’s quite, I don’t know, performative, maybe it is performative, but it’s certainly quite b- because there’s the, the window literally uh, the, the actual kind of physical window, but also of, of communication is just around the head.
And, you know, you can’t just be in the sort of same space next to someone and they know that you’re listening and, and there is a certain amount of performative listening. Isn’t there that happens over, over video. Um, and, I think it’s like, you’re kind of on stage.
Ariba Jahan: [00:36:58] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Andy Polaine: [00:36:58] I think even just that a lot of the kind of way of thinking is like, Oh, well the video is on the the camera lights action, you know, So it all sort of feels like the metaphor around that.
Um, or the mental model of it is now I’m kind of performing.
Ariba Jahan: [00:37:10] right. Like I have a ring light on right now.
Andy Polaine: [00:37:12] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:37:12] I never needed to own one before. Right. There’s like, you can hire Zoom stylists who will like uh, like give you a strategy on how your Zoom window needs to be, like what needs to be
Andy Polaine: [00:37:24] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:37:24] …in the view. I think one of the things that honestly made me panic, when all of this started is I have a really hard time, note taking and processing audio at the same time.
Andy Polaine: [00:37:39] Right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:37:40] And, when we went all virtual, you know, I was like, Oh, snap, like how, how am I gonna do this? Like, there’s gonna be a lot of meetings where I may not catch everything. And, you know, going back to my own accessibility needs I, I’ve never prioritized my own accessibility needs until 2019 where, I had.
Thanks to a lot of therapy. [laughs], I finally said I’m gonna buy hearing aids again so I could hear better. So I could, so I could process a little. better. And then when we came into this remote world, you know, I, I can’t have a headset on and my hearing AIDS on at the same time, there’s only so much space in my ear canal.
[laughs]. So that was really, really scary for me. And one of the first things I shared with my team, was. Hey, like when we were identifying like what roles we wanted to play, in what moments like in user interviews and, and, annotating, or like, you know, for the most part, we did all the things together. Um, and I really wanted that we we were a cross functional team.
So I had someone from PR and I had someone from strategy and and I was like, Me. And we did all the things together from, researching, from like generating insight, coming up with ideas, doing mock ups. there was no like, well, you’re this so you can only do this. Um, and I think that allowed us to really flex new learning muscles and all the things.
But there was a moment where I asked like, Hey, like I know you’re from PR I know you’re from strategy. Like, are there skills you’re trying to build that may not be within those. Areas already. So we could like create the space for all of us to grow. And then we also talked about what needs we had and what work styles we had.
Um, and the first thing I had to share was like, so I am not good at taking notes while like, listening or like while, I have to participate in a dialogue. It’s really hard for me. And then one of my coworkers was like, great, ‘cause I don’t want to do any of the interviews. I will not take for you if you can take the lead on interviewing, you know?
So I think like even having that level of honesty. allowed us to know like, Oh, like I wasn’t expecting that from her. I thought she would want to do, a lot of the interviews, but then I was like, okay, great. ‘Cause I’m very comfortable asking questions and facilitating these conversations. Um, but I remember how like scary it was for me to say that because, you know, because of my lived experiences where just because of my disability, it felt like I was being labeled as less capable, you know? So I think it’s easy to operate from like, okay, I wanna show you that I can do everything, you know? Um, but I think me admitting to my own accessibility needs helped like set the norm [laughs], like we all have different needs.
Andy Polaine: [00:40:39] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, you mentioned also doing sort of co-design
Ariba Jahan: [00:40:43] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Andy Polaine: [00:40:43] …and co-creation, rather over zoom and particularly on the unemployment benefits project and, and the need to really be reflexive and considerate, consider kind of the, you are in positions of of privilege uh, or serve other peoples vulnerability.
Ariba Jahan: [00:41:02] Oh yeah. I mean we’re three people with full time jobs.
Andy Polaine: [00:41:06] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:41:07] Having the privilege to learn about unemployment and not having to actually navigate it. Right. Um, I think for me, I spent, And I don’t even remember how, how many years, but we were on food stamps and I know we spent many years not being able to even have health insurance back then.
So I think I, I knew that…
Andy Polaine: [00:41:30] This is when your family first came to America?
Ariba Jahan: [00:41:32] Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm [affirmative], mm-hmm [affirmative], Yeah. Sorry. I just, I realized, I like, in my head, I jumped back to when I was seven, [laughs]-
Andy Polaine: [00:41:37] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:41:37] …but I didn’t actually say that. Um-
Andy Polaine: [00:41:40] It, It happens to lots of people all the time without them realizing it.
Ariba Jahan: [00:41:42] [laughs] Um, touche. Um, so I, I, knew that there was variety of experiences and I knew that just because I had that lived experience doesn’t mean that that’s everyone’s lived experience.
Um, but I knew that from, from knowing that I had that experience, I think all it did for me was made me mentally be aware of the privilege that we have. And I think I was really lucky. uh, my teammates are very aware too, and I think all three of us were able to think about like, “Hey, how do we, how do we make sure we honor their time?
How do we ask questions where we’re not coming to the conversation? Assuming we know the answers or like we have the best design or we have the best solution. It’s more about like, actually the opposite that, because we don’t have their experience because there’s a limitation of how much you can empathize.
Like we’re, we’re gonna do this wrong. And it’s them but, it’s them, the, the people who are actually experiencing, having to navigate the benefit system that have the answers, or, or maybe they don’t have the answers.But we’re not here to validate or invalidate their lived experiences, but we need to create the space to make sure that we are listening.
Um, and, and, and never making the assumptions that like, well, if we ask 20 questions, then we’ll empathize enough. You know, I think. What was really critical for us. Um, and, and is, is remembering like an interview is not going to suddenly give you the complete snapshot of someone else’s life during that time, they’re sharing with you what they feel comfortable, what feels necessary to share, to answer the questions that you’re asking.
And that is all, you know, and I think it’s little silly to assume that’s it’s beyond it’s, it’s more than that. Um, and you know, You and I are having this conversation. So whoever’s going to listen is going to know only this part of me, you know, from this interview, that doesn’t mean, you know, everything else.
I think that’s why I have struggled with the word empathy. Um, and I know there’s, there are many, I don’t say influence. There are many people that I respect and, and I learn from that have. Done a great job communicating that there’s limitations to empathy. Right? Tatiana Miath is a great example.
She’s done a lot of con she’s done a lot of talks where she emphasizes that. And I think the first time I heard one of her talks was like, it just clicked for me. And, because I never really understood that word. Um, and what I mean by that word is like, I understand the definition of it, but I never understood the amount of weight.
That is put on it. It’s, it’s treated like a responsibility, but it’s also treated like, like a do-good-ism. Like, I, I can empathize and I am so skilled at empathizing and it’s like, n- no, you’re great at asking questions and getting information. Um, but you still have your own privilege and lens, and, and that is different.
And, And I think it’s critical to, not see that as if it’s a. Barrier, but like, see that as like that is just real.
Andy Polaine: [00:45:09] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:45:09] I have my own biases. I have my own lens. I have my own lived experiences and I can’t undo them and suddenly empathize so much with someone that I just get them. And I think it’s, not, not silly, but like maybe also, really entitled [laughs] to assume that, you know, I I’m half deaf, but that doesn’t mean I can fully understand the lived reality of someone else that’s also deaf or someone else who has full hearing loss, you know?
Andy Polaine: [00:45:37] Yeah.
It’s a very, a fantastic example of how going looping all the way back to the beginning of how having a diverse team in the first place helps you even just surface all of those questions or be aware that those are even questions you should be asking or conversations should be having with each other.
Not necessarily to kind of fix it and have the perfect response or know exactly what to do, but to know. This is stuff that’s in the room. This is uh, th- things we need to think about. And without that diversity of, of people in that team, and I mean, diversity in every sense of, you know, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, you know, all the rest of it and as well as it’s, sort of cross functional with an organization.
If you don’t have that, you don’t get that. You don’t have the conversation, right.
Ariba Jahan: [00:46:25] No.
Andy Polaine: [00:46:25] And It just, it’s just, full of assumptions.
Ariba Jahan: [00:46:28] Right. And and I think on top of that is like, h- how do you create the diversity so that there’s the dialogue, but not doing it in a way where their, where you’re relying on that one person to represent that whole community.
So like making sure that you’re not like, okay, great. We’ve got someone that represents all of these, different differences that we know we need to um, have. And now that person is going to be the representative of all the things, right? Like I’m not going to be the representative of all POCs or all women of color or all women or, or any of the, or any like variations of that.
And and we shouldn’t look for that.
Andy Polaine: [00:47:04] Yeah.
Ariba Jahan: [00:47:04] I think sometimes it’s treated as, Okay, great. We’ve got, an Asian person in the room. Great. So can you give feedback on this Asian targeting project? You know, my skillset is my skillset, my lived experience is not the skillset that I’m selling. Right. So it’s, diversity is, I guess what I’m saying is there’s a really fine line between where diversity looking for diversity can become tokenism. And I think that is what you can have when you have, diversity, but not equity and inclusion. You know, that is a side effect of that, where you’re not being mindful of. Am I really expecting this one black person on my team to be the spokesperson for the entire black community, or am I expecting this one person who uses a certain assisted technology to become the spokesperson for all people with disabilities?
You know, I think that goes back to the interrogation of process structure. And culture, right?
Andy Polaine: [00:48:11] Yeah. And so, you know, will that one person do all of this so that we don’t have to.
Ariba Jahan: [00:48:15] Right.
Andy Polaine: [00:48:17] And again, I come back to the sustainability comparison there, which is, you know, other people should be doing stuff so that I don’t have to change my lifestyle.
You know, that’s, it, it happens all the time. Um, listen, we’re coming up to time. The, The power of Ten is, is named after uh, Ray &Charles Eames film. That’s about uh, the relative size of things in the universe. And and the final question is always what one small thing. Um, that’s either overlooked or should be redesigned, has, or would have if you’ve got redesigned, an out sized effect on the world.
Ariba Jahan: [00:49:37] I mean, I think, you know, it is December it’s time, Everyone might be in a very burnt out, but reflective head space. So I, I think maybe. Having a reflection on what is, what is your, what is the power that you have? And it’s not like, just because you have power, you have to like dissolve yourself and and disappear and vanish and be invisible.
But how do you use your power to create more equity around you in the products that are designed, and who you’re reaching and who you’re excluding? Um, What’s the, what’s the power. You have to help inform decisions that could actually benefit from having, h- having some serious interrogation, you know, how are decisions being made?
Are you part of decision making that you actually think that there are other people that should be part of making that decision? And could you create space for that? You know, I think it’s it’s. I think we talked a lot about power this year. And I think it’s, it’s, it’s sure knowledge and be aware of the power that you have and then maybe wrangle that power and think about how do you create changes in the structures that you, are part of.
And that structure doesn’t have to be some major organizational structure. You know, if you wanna at least break it down to like, if you’re a team leader, how are meetings running? Who’s creating the tone, who’s setting the agenda. Um, I think even something as simple as setting the agenda has power ‘cause you’re talking, you’re creating prioritization and norms and what’s acceptable behaviors and non acceptable behaviors.
So I guess what I’m saying is reflect on what power you have in all the different spaces you exist. Um, and how do you use that so that you’re, you’re learning too in how those powers could be used, and, and misused. And if you’re kind of in your own DEI journey, or if you’re in your own, I mean, if, we, we all are.
Um, but like, if you’re kind of thinking through how do I create more equity in the work that I do and the way that I lead. Maybe you reflect on how we got here for yourself, you know, and the organization you’re in or the organization you lead and thinking about, which one of those can you, work to shift in the new year?
Andy Polaine: [00:52:10] That seems like a very powerful reflection to to end on. So, where can people find you online?
Ariba Jahan: [00:52:17] Um, you can find me on Twitter. It’s just my first and last name. So that’s Ariba Jahan. And I’m on Instagram as well. Same name Ariba Jahan. And my website is aribajahan.com.
Andy Polaine: [00:52:28] and on LinkedIn. too.
Ariba Jahan: [00:52:31] Oh, yes, LinkedIn too. That’s right.
Andy Polaine: [00:52:33] We’ll put all the links in the show notes.
Thank you so much for sharing all those experiences and insights and being my guest on Power of Ten.
Ariba Jahan: [00:52:41] Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited that we got to uh, do this together. Really appreciated this time, this conversation, Andy.
Andy Polaine: [00:52:48] Thank you. As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to power of Ten. My name’s Andy Polaine, You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter, or Polaine.com where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note. If you like the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us. And, as always, get in touch if you have any comments, feedback, or suggestions for guests.
All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening. and See you next time.