Sheryl Cababa – Systems Thinking for Designers

Sheryl Cababa – Systems Thinking for Designers

My guest in this episode is Sheryl Cababa, author of Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers. Sheryl is a design researcher and strategist, and is the chief strategy officer at Substantial, a research insights and development studio based in Seattle. Her practice is focused on systems thinking and equity center design, and she’s worked with a diverse base of clients, including the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Ikea, and Khan Academy.


Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation and onto changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service designer and innovation consultant, design, leadership coach, educator, and writer.

My guest today is Sheryl Cababa, author of Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers. She’s a design researcher and strategist, and is the chief strategy officer at Substantial, a research insights and development studio based in Seattle. Her practice is focused on systems thinking and equity center design, and she’s worked with a diverse base of clients, including the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Ikea, and Khan Academy.

Our focus is on using design to help clients reimagine education. If that wasn’t enough. She also teaches at the University of Washington’s Human-centered Design and Engineering program helping to introduce systems thinking to the next generation of designers. Cheryl, welcome to Power of 10.

[00:01:09] Sheryl Cababa: Thank you.

So happy to be having this conversation.

[00:01:12] Andy Polaine: So of all, of all people who should be on this podcast, it, it’s you because the, the systems thinking things all about those different kind of layers of zoom. Before we do, let’s kind of zoom back to you. And I’m always interested in how people, people’s journey to here.

So what was your journey? What did you start out doing or think you were going to do and uh, and now where are you?

[00:01:32] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, I really thought that I was going to be a product designer forever. Um, I started the, uh, the first half of my career. You know, primarily doing digital product design. Um, I worked at Microsoft, um, I worked at Phillips Design.

Um, what’s funny is before that I thought I was going to be a journalist. Um, and so I studied journalism and political science, um, when I was in school. And, uh, yeah, I think it’s interesting, like I sort of. Halfway through my career as it sort of stands today, I. Kind of entered the world of design strategy and research.

Um, when I became a design consultant, um, you know, I started working for Adaptive Path, was like the first consultancy I worked for, and I loved kind of like their approach to design and terms of, um, you know, everybody was kind of a generalist. We had like researchers and strategists. And also experienced designers.

Um, but you kind of had to know how to do all of it. And, um, I really gravitated towards research and strategy because it felt a little bit like, um, I don’t know. I was, I was a little bit of like a disgruntled product designer by that point because I felt like a lot of the decisions had already been made before they get to where I am.

And I am here kind of like designing screens and. Um, you know, wasn’t, didn’t feel like that empowered to like actually question what came before, um, before me in terms of like the decisions that were made. And so, Being able to be at the front end of the design process, particularly when you’re engaging in design strategy, really appealed to me.

Um, and it’s funny because I know a lot of designers who are kind of like, oh, does it bother you that you, you don’t f do you ever feel like you’re not. You don’t see anything out in the world that you, you don’t make anything anymore actually worked on. Yeah, I don’t make anything anymore, and I’m like, no, I’m actually really like where I’m at.

And I think there is actually something really interesting, for example, um, in terms of working on a product or a strategy. That never comes to fruition. And trying to understand why that is, um, is just as interesting as when I see it come to fruition and it’s not exactly reflected in kind of like the work we initially did.

Um, and so I think working in that space and working with like a ton of just different organizations and different domains, you naturally, I think I. Many in that same position gravitate towards ideas that align with systems thinking methodology because, you know, you’re kind of like considering the intersection of organizations, products and services, um, and end users and other stakeholders, um, who are kind of engaged at the eventual use of.

Those products and services. Um, and you know, around this time I was actually doing a lot of like, um, service design as well. So I think all of those things combined got me really interested in system thinking methodology and I think that’s where, um, that’s how I started trying to integrate it into my practice.

And you kind of see the results of that effort. Yeah. Like successful or not? Um, in the book

[00:05:09] Andy Polaine: it is successful. I’m really pleased. I was just saying before, You know, before we started recording, I, I, I particularly want to give it to, well, no, I want all my students to buy it. Uh, I really think it’s an important thing.

So I’m gonna get onto it in a second. But when, so when you were saying, you know, I was this frustrated product designer and then, and then got into all of this, when are we talking here? Sort of what year are we talking?

[00:05:30] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. Um, It’s interesting, like I, I moved to the states in 2015, um, from the Netherlands, and so like, I was kind of experiencing, you know, myself and my family experiencing kind of like a big shift in kind of like moving back home to the us Yeah.

And like, um, I think. Around that time I was doing a lot of work with sort of like, kind of big, sort of like enterprise organizations. Mm. Like I worked with kind of like a major Canadian bank. I worked with a big pharmaceutical company. Um, and I was uh, I was a design consultant at, um, artifact at the time, which is another sort of Seattle based studio.

And I think. Kind of working on those kinds of, um, products and services, you just start realizing that it’s. I don’t know. These things are intertwined and then kind of the things that were happening in the world at the time. Mm-hmm. Like the US election, Brexit, you’re just kind of like, oh, these things are really, like, everything is connected in a way that we don’t always acknowledge as we’re making decisions about it.

Yeah. And so, um, Just kind of like the political environment we were in at that time combined with like, kind of these big projects that I was working on. Um, just got me really interested in just kind of thinking specifically about causality. Yeah. About unintended consequences. Um, and this really jumped out when I was working with.

Kind of big technology companies on emerging technology was, uh, you know, like I kind of kick off the book with an anecdote about like how I used Black Mirror as an example, um, to, to encourage my clients to think about unintended consequences and they actually kind of viewed it as potential feature ideas.

And that was like a very distressing moment for me.

[00:07:31] Andy Polaine: Yeah. I, I, um, I, as I read that, I thought I can, I can absolutely imagine that moment, actually. I mean, for people who dunno, Black Mirror, UK TV series and each, each episode was a sort of dystopian extrapolation of tech kind of now and what might happen if it continues on this path in the future.

And so, yeah. Um, for a client to then go, oh yeah, that sounds like a great idea. Um, Is worrying.

[00:07:56] Sheryl Cababa: Indeed. It was like a dystopian moment in and of itself. I was like, this is it. It was a, it is a moment from another show, which is, uh, Silicon Valley. Yeah. Which I don’t know if anyone’s seen, but it’s, it’s definitely like a parody of the tech industry in San Francisco.

[00:08:11] Andy Polaine: So this would’ve been like 2015/ 16 probably than when you were this was going on. Um, the reason why I ask is cuz I, I definitely have seen. So, as you know, I, I’ve been involved in service design for a while and, and, um, I was, the book, the book we wrote is, is 10 years old actually. Um, amazing.

Oh my God. Kind of probably around, around now-ish, I think. Yeah. I mean, we, we started, it took us ages to write, so we, we started writing at the end of 2010 and, um, I, I think by, you know, by then I definitely had already sort of discovered and got into. Uh, systems thinking. But, uh, the first sort of few years of before that, when I was shifting from, I’d say, sort of interaction design, um, into.

That area. And I was interested in design of organizations and stuff. You know, there’s a lot of, we’re thinking a lot about that kinda zooming in and out. You’d think a lot about how an individual touchpoint that sort of affects the whole system and how a shift in the whole ecosystem reports across all the touchpoints and all of that.

And then when I started, I think I read, um, Donna Donella Meadows is, um, thinking a systems book. And I was like, oh my god. You know, there’s this whole thing. And obviously, I dunno, when do you know where the origins of it? Because I mean, I, I trace it with her back to, um, uh, the limits to growth. Um, but I’m, I’m guessing systems thinking goes back further than that.

[00:09:27] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. Um, I wasn’t actually super aware of the history of systems thinking methodology. Um, Until I really started conducting the research in this book, even though I had come across some of the writings before, so for example, um, Peter Sangs, the, yeah. Fifth Discipline is kind of like a classic and organizational change management and systems thinking.

Um, and there’s a lot of, I, I guess like thought leadership and writing from like the 1960s and 1970s. Yeah. Um, specifically Peter Cland kind of like wrote, um, I think the systems of systems. Methodology, um, I think it’s called,

[00:10:07] Andy Polaine: that’s the sort of the meta systems analysis of systems, right? Yeah.

[00:10:11] Sheryl Cababa: That’s right.

Yeah. Like soft systems thinking versus hard systems thinking. And I th I, you know, I write a little bit about that in the book because I think there is, And I don’t wanna get like too deep into like the history of systems thinking because I think it’s, it’s one of the factors that make this area really intimidating for designers is that they feel like it is like a fully fledged, you know, tradition.

I. If they haven’t engaged in it at all or don’t know anything about it, then they’re not equipped to actually be doing systems thinking. Mm-hmm. And, um, I’ve, I’ve felt that barrier definitely, like when I’ve kind of talked to folks who have used systems thinking, um, you know, in terms of like the formalized systems thinking practice.

I would just like walk away from some of those conversations just feeling like I’m not equipped to be doing this. Yeah. Okay. Like I’m not equipped to be creating systems maps that are dynamic and that, you know, I have to kind of plug in. I. Math.

[00:11:20] Andy Polaine: Yeah. And there’s, there’s a living flow diagrams of…

[00:11:24] Sheryl Cababa: Right. Yeah. Living, living causal loop diagram. Yeah. Like, yeah. It’s, um, yeah, I think it can be a barrier. And then sometimes those in the design practices are like, you know, I have a other things to do.

[00:11:36] Andy Polaine: I guess that’s why I became a designer. I, I don’t do that.

[00:11:38] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

[00:11:41] Andy Polaine: The reason why I ask is cuz I, I think about, hmm, I’m just trying to think… probably seven, eight years ago started kind of seeing more around systems thinking in design and s you know, uh, and then it sort of crept in and then, well there was a bunch of stuff and you write about something, uh, some of this in the book as well. Um, Which was, you know, you just talked about the election.

Then we saw the whole kind of big tech, uh, you know, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and, you know, there was a whole lot of stuff around data. Yeah. And then this idea of, you know, what’s going on the tech industry and all the kind of potential harms, and also what happens if you sort of move fast and break things at kinda massive scale.

Plus then you got the uh, black Lives Matter movement, which had obviously been going for a while, but it hadn’t had that kinda moment. It was George Floyd and is hopefully still going, uh, with their moment. I don’t want to kinda make that sound like that’s just was a blip, but there was a kind of, it, it was a moment where that pushed into much more of a kind of mainstream consciousness at the same time as Trump and everyone else.

And then Covid happened. Uh, and for me, you know, I used to struggle to. Explain this relationship between the micro and the, and the macro. And, and Covid was in a way, a kind of a gift there, and you talk about it as an example in the book because it sort of is a thing that everyone experienced, I guess.

[00:13:01] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. Um, it’s, it’s interesting how. All of a sudden you had kind of the media trying to explain systems during the beginning of Covid. Yeah, like just things like why is there a toilet paper shortage? So that like sort of interaction of like the micro and the macro, like suddenly all of us were like semi experts in.

Logistics systems and supply chain problems. Yeah, because we were like, oh my gosh. Feedback loops as well. Yeah, yeah. And feedback loops. Like why is this one thing, why is there a shortage in terms of like this one thing, but not with others? And yeah, just the idea that all of these things intersect. I talk a little bit in the book about the steep framework, for example, like sociocultural, technological, environmental, economic, and political, and.

Everything you saw happening, like particularly when the, um, when the pandemic started, had every single one of those elements evolved, whether you’re looking at toilet paper shortages or whether you’re looking at like mask mandates or what have you, there’s like a human behavioral element combined with, you know, various, um, like systems at play, um, infrastructure, uh, policy, et cetera.

And I think like that’s when you, you know, you hear people talking about like how systems work, how essentially how, um, you know, we have. These supply just in time. Mm. You know, supply chains, uh, supply chains, et cetera. And this affects everything that we do. Um, and I think just having an understanding of that, even if it’s like hard to figure out, like how can this integrate in my work, um, is.

Sort of a mindset shift that has been happening, I think more broadly, um, I never, like outside of academia, heard the term systemic racism used in the mainstream. Mm-hmm. Until just a few years ago. Yeah. And, Even that sort of like perception is a fundamental shift in our collective mindsets that is oriented around kind of thinking about how things are interconnected.

[00:15:16] Andy Polaine: Yeah, yeah. COVID was like the sort of the biggest demo of a wicked problem, you know, that you could have given the world. And, and at the same time you talked, you mentioned the ever given getting stuck in, um, the Panama Canal as well. And all these kind of things happened all at once. It was very, uh, fascinating and one of the things that struck me about those things is that they.

They made the invisible visible, right? We kind of all knew this idea of globalization and supply chains and yeah, I kind of know that, you know, everything, everything in my iPhone sort of comes from, you know, all over the world and, and it’s assembled, but I don’t, I don’t really kind of get how that happens or, and it wasn’t until, you know, people say I can’t buy a fridge because, you know, there’s no microprocesses around at the moment.

And, um, and that kinda stuff, as well as obviously all the kind of effects that when you just adjust, uh, three or four touch points like social distancing, masks. Um, and, you know, trying not to touch stuff, all of a sudden there’s a whole load of things in the world that you can’t do. I, I, I sort a photo of an ATM machine and it’s just got, it’s really rubbish.

It’s the someone in classic Canne the business has been told to do something and, um, they’d haven’t actually given the people on the ground there at tours to do it. Someone had just stuck like a kind of piece of paper over an ATM screen and it just said, you know, out of use due to. Covid or something because they didn’t want, they didn’t know, they didn’t want people touching the touchscreen.

Yeah. At the beginning. So one of the things I think design is gonna bring to this though is, is exactly that, right? Is making the vis, uh, the invisible visible. And, but before we kind of get to the intersection of design and systems thinking, I feel like we’ve probably jumped ahead a bit. Maybe you can. I dunno if you’re up for giving, uh, a sort of potted definition of what, what is systems thinking?

What are the sort of crucial bits to it?

[00:16:56] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, I describe systems thinking. I tried to summarize it in sort of three key concepts. So essentially, well, first of all, I r I really do want to emphasize that. It requires a mindset shift before you can kind of like dive into the tools and methods Yeah. In order to kind of enact it in your work.

And that mindset shift involves kind of thinking about three things, thinking about how things are interconnected, thinking about causality and thinking about wholeness. And so, um, you know, if you think about just like. A forest or like a tree root system. All of those things are interconnected. The trees are kind of talking to each other and what have you.

There’s also causality. So you have a whole system of like biodiversity that is dependent on those trees and how they grow and um, and interact with each other. And then you have wholeness, like that’s the entirety of the forest and kind of like the impact that um, it has on each other and that.

Wholeness piece, there are kind of boundaries to it, and you can kind of determine where those boundaries are. You can be talking about the entirety of the earth. You can be talking about, um, the rainforest, you know, the uh, Amazon rainforest. Like, it just kind of depends on like where your sort of system of analysis has its boundaries.

Um, and so kind of thinking about things in those way automatically. Should expand your purview beyond just like what you’re working on as a designer. Like whether you’re, um, working as a designer on a product, whether you’re like designing how services interact with each other, um, whether you’re working on organizational change, like all of these things.

Um, these three aspects really matter is just like how things are interconnected, what’s the wholeness in terms of like what you’re analyzing, and then what’s the causality like, what happens beyond the direct benefit of use? Specifically if you’re designing products and services, what happens beyond the direct benefit of use?

[00:19:03] Andy Polaine: Yeah. And so that idea of. Causal loops. Well, there’s, there’s a few sort of fundamentals of things like stocks and flows, but that maybe you can explain what stocks and flows and causal loops are. Cause I feel like they’re kind of core terms, uh, and, and we get stuck without getting those sorted.

[00:19:18] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, it’s, it’s funny because like folks who are like familiar with systems thinking really associated, these are kind of like the most iconic.

Sort of expressions of systems syncing are often causal loop diagrams and then stock and flow diagrams. So causal loop diagrams are basically just cause and effect loops that can either like indicate, you know, Uh, you know, there’s different terminology, like it could be a virtuous cycle, so just something that, um, maintains itself.

Uh, the classic example used in systems thinking is a thermostat. So if you have a thermostat set to room temperature and then the heat drops like inside the house. The thermostat will kick on. It’ll hit the temperature that you’ve set and then it will turn off. And so this is a sort of sustainable loop because it, you know, it kind of maintains itself.

Um, you can have vicious cycles as well. So, uh, I think an example that I use in the book, um, is around urban sprawl. So, so the idea that people buy more cars. So, um, governments invest in more. Roads and car infrastructure. Um, and then, uh, things get, like things get built farther apart and so people buy more cars.

And so this is what you might describe, um, you know, if you don’t like cars as a vicious cycle and. What you do when you’re creating causal loop diagram is you combine that causal loop with other causal loops that might be adjacent or might intersect with it. Um, and so a good example for the urban sprawl, um, example is another causal loop that’s like the downshift of public transportation.

Yeah. As the result of like government investment in car infrastructure. Um, and. A lot of time this can, you know, be a, you can have an expression of, um, causal loops that’s only two loops like that. You’re almost like getting at root cause in that case, or you can have one that’s hundreds of causal loops.

Yeah. Um, and it just kind of depends on how far you want to bring your analysis.

[00:21:31] Andy Polaine: Yeah. And so, um, there’s that, uh, complexity kind of building in there. And you mentioned the Peter Sege quote, which is, Right. Something like today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions. Is, is that the one I think

[00:21:43] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. Yeah. To paraphrase, I think, I think that’s what it is, is um, today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions and yeah.

That’s a big, that’s a core part of the mindset systems thinking.

[00:21:54] Andy Polaine: Well, no, there’s also this, when you were talking about the public transport theme, because obviously, uh, you then also talk about, uh, ride sharing services like, uh, Lyft and Uber. Um, there to. Fill the gap or, uh, or at least the kind of user experience gap of Right, you know, bad public transport.

Um, but in turn then sort of decimated or at least, uh, made public transport worse, uh, as a result, right?

[00:22:16] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Which is like, that’s part of this analysis too, is to kind of like, see what’s actually happening. Um, And you wouldn’t hear that from the ride share services like they No, no, no.

They basically, they basically say like, we’re improving, we’re improving public transportation. Um, and I think that’s one of the things that. I, I don’t know that I emphasize in my book enough is just kind of like using these various inputs in order to kind of like inform your understanding of a space that means, um, engaging with others who are experts.

Mm. Like within the system that you’re analyzing as well as. I don’t know, using kind of like the data that’s around you. Yeah. Like even like publicly available data, et cetera, to, to be able to like understand the nuance story of how the system works.

[00:23:11] Andy Polaine: Yeah. I mean I think you do talk about that actually quite, you know, really nicely in the book, which this idea of once you can broaden your.

Lens and look, you know, beyond the end user, and you look at this kind of bigger context in which it’s, it’s happening. And then, you know, perhaps the context within that, if you do it well, you automatically include other stakeholders and experts and, and not just, and you, you actually redefine stakeholders of, well, not redefine, but you expand the term to not just be, you know, the business stakeholders and, and, um, the end users, but you know the city and you know, other people who aren’t.

Directly. You know, certainly perhaps not involved in any decision making, um, in some cases, but are affected by it. Yeah. I’ve got a question for you though, which is, you know, this is the thing that service designers have a kind of reputation for trying to boil the ocean. Right? And they get, they get caught in that, up in that thing where you ladder this stuff up enough, and of course you end up, as you say, At a point where you go, well, you know, because capitalism, right, we, we, you know, everything is all connected together.

All the stuff we’re talking about with kind of global supply chains and everything, you kind of get to a point where it just becomes this, you know, this big massive global problem that is kind of systemic to the way we, we live. How do you draw boundaries and, and tell me about sort of how you might go about that and then sort of the important importance of deciding, you know, where does my work end?

And you talk about sort of the work, the influence and so on.

[00:24:39] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, that’s such a good question because, um, well, one is, it’s a, it’s kind of hard to answer because I think it’s sort of up to you and the stakeholders who are involved in the system in which you’re analyzing to kind of determine where the boundaries are and yeah, it could be, You, you could continue analyzing to the edge of the universe if you, if you wanted to and had the time to do so.

But I don’t know necessarily like there’s a point where there isn’t any utility anymore. And I think I. Part of it is one, emphasizing that you’re not doing this in isolation. Like as a designer, you’re not like creating a systems map with you and just like your design team or what have you, or like your business stakeholder.

Um, the idea is that you are drafting these in workshops with people who are. Experts in different parts of the system, whether they’re lived experts in that they’re affected by the system or whether they’re, let’s say, academic experts who work in the space. Um, I think a good example is I do a lot of work in education and you could.

Yeah, you could com, you could totally boil the ocean. Like you could be talking about like every possible facet and aspect of education. If, you know, if you took the steep framework and applied it, it touches everything, right? You could be talking about, you know, the workforce, et cetera, and I think it’s, It’s important to engage like a really broad number of stakeholders.

So I think an example that I use in the book is some, a project, um, that I actually worked on, which is kind of thinking about the experience and the outcomes of multi-language learners, um, in the school environment, right? And there’s a couple of inherent. Limit, there’s like system boundaries already. One is like, okay, we’re limited to kind of thinking about how this can shift in the us So we’re not looking at like, kind of like the international system of like in experience as a multilingual learners, you could do some comparison like comparative study by engaging maybe like, um, An academic expert who knows systems beyond the boundary of which you’re drawing.

Um, and then, you know, we might limit it maybe to certain subjects because this is where we’re thinking about the potential interventions in this space would fall. I. Within like these specific subjects or these specific school environment types or districts or what have you. And so the boundaries start naturally being drawn by, um, you know, there’s this concept of bounded rationality, so.

When you come into, uh, systems analysis, you are bound by your own understanding, your own experiences, your own biases. And this is what Donella Meadows calls bounded rationality. And so everybody who comes into your systems analysis has something similar. So what’s important is to. Engage people who have a different sense of bounded rationality.

So I might engage, for example, subject matter experts who are academic researcher in researchers in understanding the dynamics of multilingual learners, um, in their experience in K through 12 education. And I think that’s like, A boundary like that I don’t have as a designer or, you know, knowing that I’m not necessarily a domain expert, I’m an expert in experience design, I don’t necessarily bring that to the table.

And I think by conducting this analysis, I. With your sort of broad set of stakeholders will determine the boundaries of the system that you’re trying to analyze. Um, and I know that’s not necessarily such like an, a satisfying answer, but I know when I’ve run into the problem of like not knowing where the boundary is, is when I’m trying to create a systems map on my own.

Mm-hmm. That’s the only time where I’m kind of like, oh my gosh, I can keep going and I can keep going and I can keep going. Your other stakeholders who kind of know about the system and who are affected by it will help you better understand where the boundaries are.

[00:29:01] Andy Polaine: Yeah. In the Donella Meadows book, she uses these sort of clouds at either end of, of a sort of stocks and flows diagram to indicate that, yeah, we know there’s, there’s other stuff here and of course, kind of really, you know, one end wraps around to the other quite often as well. But this is the boundaries of what we’re concentrating on. Um, there was a thing that really stuck with me that Ben and Larin, with whom I, I wrote the service design book.

And I think it’s a live work thing. They used to talk about on and off ramps and this idea that each touchpoint has an on and and off ramp. So people are coming from sort step, are coming from somewhere and they’re going somewhere else, whether it’s from step to step or, you know, over time or, or from touchpoint channel to something else.

So, you know, coming from a website to a face-to-face experience and this idea that if you can kind of take care of, or, or consider the on and off ramp, and if everyone does it, Then the whole thing becomes much more, um, if not seamless, then it’s, it’s there’s a lot more kind of joining together. Cuz a lot of the problem happens when, you know, one group of people design one bit, another group of people do another bit and there’s a gap.

Mm-hmm. Um, and, and everyone thinks it’s the other person’s responsibility. There’s a lot here where you can. Uh, imagine and think, well, you know, and this is, you know, there’s a lot of designers who feel like, well, I want to make a positive impact in the world. I want to work on some things to do with sustainability or social impact.

This, this, you know, I know lots of design students certainly, but certainly lots of other, uh, colleagues who want to do that stuff and, uh, often don’t get the chance to. I want to kind of turn it around though, because that sort of siloed, disjointed kind of way of thinking that doesn’t have those on and off.

Ramps often happens in companies or in product teams where you know, kind of cranking through a set features from a backlog and they’re not, or the feature teams are separated from each other, but they’re actually working on one whole thing, holistic thing, and from a, say, product manager point of view or from the CEO or business point of view.

The, you know, what’s in it for them to think in terms of systems. Cuz I can see the counter argument is, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all very well, but you know, can’t bo the ocean. So anyway, I’ve got this K P I or O K R if you’re lucky to deliver this feature. Right. Why should I bother with this?

[00:31:07] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. I think it’s actually, I kind of describe it as, A potential source of innovation, like for people who are decision makers.

If you understand kind of the system in which you’re operating, you might be able to identify other points of, um, you know, I, I use the term intervention. I know it sounds weird and uh, business context, but like you can identify just area, other areas for potential change that could be, I. Not something that was on your radar before.

Um, and so I think that’s like kind of one, one way of thinking about it. I think another is, I. You might be able to identify potential unintended consequences if you kind of look at the system of like how you’re, um, designing something. So again, kind of back to the example of education. There are a lot of stakeholders in education and if, for example, I’m working on a learning management system that needs to be used, I don’t know, in a huge school district, district-wide, oftentimes, You know, the way you’re designing it might be oriented around just, it might even be oriented around how who is buying it, right?

Like Yeah, there’s the like administrators it, IT management. Nope. Not the end users, what have you. Yeah. Yeah. Not even necessarily the end users. Yeah. Um, and so you see a lot of failed enterprise. Products like that, um, going into organizations and then like the end users just like, don’t even bother with something because they’re just like, you know what?

I’m just, I’m gonna go rogue and use my own thing. You see teachers do this all the time.

[00:32:53] Andy Polaine: Yeah. I used to have a little microsite for my stuff all the time.

[00:32:56] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. Like, oh, I’ve done it. I like, as a teacher, I’ve done it as well. And so, um, I think I. Just having that basic understanding, and it’s not just about, even just like shifting towards your end users.

It’s about kind of like understanding how you can kind of pave the way for success for, uh, you know, a certain solution or what have you. Um, I remember, uh, you know, I do a lot of work with like philanthropies as well. And I remember somebody telling me like, yeah, in global health there are these philanthropies and like a lot of them have like, just like there’s gonna be like a room in their office that’s filled with like some failed interventions or failed products or whatever.

Because they hadn’t actually kind of thought about the adoption of these things. Within communities that, you know, they weren’t familiar with or they didn’t have any representation on their team or what have you, to kind of talk about like what the, what the boundaries are. I think I might talk a little bit about like the one laptop per child initiative you do.

Yeah. From like, yeah, the two thousands. Um, and. That like lacked sort of like a system’s understanding of how it should, how it could potentially be adopted and you know, some of the potential cultural barriers, some of the economic barriers and infrastructure barriers to that sort of thing being adopted.

They might have come up with a different type of solution. Yeah. Had they kind of understood the dynamics within the communities in which they were going to be operating

[00:34:34] Andy Polaine: and that was that this idea of kind of one laptop per child that, uh, uh, this thing would. To just benefit one child didn’t make sense culturally that in it would be, you know, how does this benefit the family or, or, um, politic.

[00:34:47] Sheryl Cababa: Right. Or community. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

[00:34:49] Andy Polaine: Uh, there were similar things in Australia, I think as well with the indigenous community there, that some of the, some of the welfare systems that you, you know, this the account or the security is, uh, connected to, you know, login by phone and you have, uh, an app, uh, from the government that is like a, you know, two factor thing.

Uh, and the problem is, is it’s matched to the IME number of the sim card mm-hmm. Or the, of the device. And, um, rather, and, but those, those devices are shared. They’re seen as a sort of common thing and so it doesn’t kind of work at all. Any of that. Any of those things. Yeah. Sorry, go on.

[00:35:26] Sheryl Cababa: Oh, no. I was going to say, I think, um, One of the things that I emphasize in like, I don’t think people typically associate this with systems thinking though, when I was doing my research, like some of the early kind of system scientists like Peter Lin talked about it quite often was um, You know what I call designer positionality.

Yeah. So thinking about who you are, where you’re from, the kind of privileges you might have, the biases you have, and how that informs the way you think about solutions. And so I think many of these examples stem from not understanding even those who are going to be your end users. Right. And so like I think there’s that aspect of like, Understanding yourself as not being outside of the system.

Yeah. But within the system, um, is like kind of a core, um, aspect of like the mindset of systems thinking, I think .

[00:36:18] Andy Polaine: So, you know, designers, and you talk about this a bit, sort of often go quickly into the, the solution and solutionism and techno solutionism in particular. Um, but what’s the, so what’s the difference between an intervention and a solution?

[00:36:31] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. So. I try to avoid the term solution now because of that Peter Senge quote, which is like, you know, it’s gonna cause problems in the future. Yeah. So oftentimes I describe our way of like, problem quote, solving is more, I. Like, I think it’s problem navigating, right? Like we’re navigating problem spaces, especially when we’re, we’re dealing with these big sort of like systemic issues.

And it doesn’t have to just be like a wicked problem in the, in the social impact space. It can just be like, It could be a wicked problem in terms of like you’re designing complex enterprise software or something like that. Yeah. Um, and knowing that there isn’t like any sort of like singular solution keeps you from talking about things as solutions.

Yeah. And I think they’re interventions because they create a shift in how you make change. Right. And like there’s, uh, Dan Donella Meadows again has this concept of multi finality, which is like, I. There’s going to be different potential ways of intervening within a problem. Like there’s no singular way, there’s no like, magic bullet.

Yeah. Um, doing something. There’s like no app for that. So I think, um, you know, oftentimes within the technology sector we get, we sometimes think about the things that we’re designing as, oh, this is going to kind of like, Fix everything or you know, I think it’s like inherent in the way of thinking as kind of this TED Talk ization of like what we’re working on, whereas kind of like, oh, there’s going to be all of these benefits and that makes it hard for us to kind of think about like the potential problems that something might cause and how we might.

Actually also create interventions for like the thing that we’re designing. Yeah. Um, so that’s a, that happens a lot like in the space of emerging technology. I think we’re kind of seeing like that sort of grappling happening right now, for example, with like large language learning models and AI and how they’re going to have an impact on us.

Yeah. Um, and yeah, for some people it’s really hard to see the downside of that. And for some, for others it’s really hard to see like how this. Could possibly have any benefit that won’t, you know, um, result in yeah. AI taking over everything for us or whatever. And I think it’s just like more nuanced than that.

And that’s maybe like where systems thinking comes in and like a problem space like that, that is like really meaty and has a lot of potential outcomes. Yeah.

[00:39:06] Andy Polaine: Yeah. Donella Meadows has this. People will find, if they Google it, there’s 12 leverage points and they’re all sort of different facets of like, you know, policy and stocks and flows and you know, and they’re very, and they’re in.

Sort of increasing order of effectiveness. You starts off with something like the metrics or something and, and you know, that’s genuinely what politicians kind of nibble around that. And the very last one is basically kind of change the system completely, or, and it’s um, it’s this kind of interesting Yeah.

Set of way of looking at it. But I think also with that comes this sort of multi finality thing comes this idea that you talk about quite a lot, which is cyclical versus linear. That you never really, it’s never really kind of finished right. When you’re working with systems. You know, this is why I kinda hate the language of, of product in terms of that sort of industrial language about kinda shipping code and kind of shipping features and stuff.

Cuz again, it makes it sound like we’ve done, it’s out there, right onto the next one and we don’t have to kind think about it anymore. Whereas, you know, obviously it’s an ecosystem and you’re just. You know, no one, no one ships code anyway. I mean, I shipped code, I’ve put a CD ROM on a, you know, on into a courier’s hand and it’s gone off.

But, you know, you upload it to someone’s computer, someone else’s computer somewhere in the world, right? Um, you know, deploy it. But it’s, it’s, um, this idea that you can, you put a thing in the world, it’s much more like, kind of, you know, throwing some litter into the, into the forest. Right? Uh, and, and it’s gonna have an effect.

Uh, and then it is this idea of this kind of linear thing done. And I think that’s cyclicality, cyclicality, that’s not a word, but that cyclical nature of things. I don’t, no, I think I’ve just done a, I’ve just done that classic Americanism thing of kind of turning it cyclists. Yeah. Um, but those, that cyclical nature of it, I think is an important, uh, thing to, for people to get their head around as is.

Incentives and metrics. You talk about perverse incentives. Tell me what are they?

[00:40:59] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, yeah. So I talked a little about, bit like about unintended consequences in the book and how um, yeah, oftentimes. An interesting thing about a system is a system kind of behaves in a way that might be independent of what you hope the outcomes would be.

Mm-hmm. Um, and a good example of that is the classic, um, you know, I, I think some. Folks have heard of the Cobra Effect, which is a really great example of perverse incentives in the book. I use like an actual, like historical example where, um, in colonial Vietnam, the French, um, colonial government tried to eradicate rats by having peop, by putting a bounty on rats and having people bring in.

Dead rats so that they could know the rat population was going down. But as they progressed, more and more rats were turning up, so they were having piles upon piles of dead rats, and they were like, what is going on? This is. This is like, statistically this is not what should be happening. Um, what it turned out was because they were incentivizing it and paying people for the rat bodies, um, that there was rat farming going on just outside of the city, and people would be bringing in the dead rats.

And actually the rat population was increasing. And so that’s a good example of perverse incentives in terms of just like, People are being incentivized to do the thing that you’re actually hoping they don’t do, um, or that you’re actually hoping the outcome would be the opposite. Um, and that, I think that happens sometimes just like in inadvertently.

So I hear a lot, for example, um, I’ve done some work with like the big technology companies that have social media platforms and. I think a lot of people like working within those product teams. Um, as I’ve worked in the space of like responsible design and helping these teams with like responsible design is that they really struggle with the metrics within their own organization.

So if ultimately the thing that you’re being measured by is, for example, um, daily active users or monthly active users, and. You actually think like users need to slow their activity down. Mm-hmm. Or you know, they need to maybe stop using your product for a while. This flies in the face of like the organizational KPIs and it’s going, it makes it impossible to kind of do anything that might challenge those metrics to begin with.

And so I think a really good understanding of. Within the organization you’re in, what are the incentives? What are the metrics? What is your manager measured by? Yeah. What are your executives measured by helps inform like the decisions that you make, and also gives you the ability to potentially challenge those metrics if you need to, um, in order to have better outcomes.

Um, and I think some sort of, Like doing that sort of analysis of like who your stakeholders are and what they are ostensibly, uh, incentivized by kind of helps you maybe kind of like arrive at ideas about what the metrics should be.

[00:44:24] Andy Polaine: Yeah, yeah. It’s, um, it’s the same as when, you know, uh, lots of layoffs just before stock buybacks that bump the share price, um, that the executive gets their pay, the CEO guess they’re gonna pay based on that. Yeah. You talk about, you have a, I it’s, it’s, I’d like to read out the list actually, cause I think they’re really good. You said, um, uh, you know, whether they, the metrics align with your desired outcomes, you know, how’s the success of the product, of your work being measured?

Does the way that success being measured align with your organization and stakeholders Desired outcomes? Does it? Align with your desired outcomes for society and how are people in your organization incentivized to, um, achieve the measure of success? And do they align with their desired outcomes? And, you know, do they have a clear connection to the desirable outcomes or people likely to cheat the system to achieve their own incentives?

And I think such a great kind of list of sort of, well, a checklist or a kind of filter to really kind of pass things through to more critically analyze it. Uh, I think, and, and what people are doing and you know, when people talk about ethics, they often talk about sort of, there’s a right and there’s a wrong, but ethics is obviously highly contextual and, and, um, more nuanced and complex.

But I think that set of, uh, values, I think people are often, really what they’re talking about is. This seems to be a, a very good way cuz cuz you’re not saying what people should or shouldn’t do, you’re just saying do these align with your values? Right. Uh, or not. And I think it’s a very good, good kind of checklist for people to kinda look through.

Yeah. So look, we are coming up to time. Uh, I could go on talking about this rages cuz I, I, I love this, uh, subject area and it kind of really dovetails well with, you know, with service design too. But, uh, come to the final question, which is, as, as you know, this podcast is named after Powers of Ten, the ran Charles Eames film about the relative size of things in the universe. Um, and so that relationship between those different zoom levels. So what one small thing is either overlooked or could be redesigned that would have an outsized effect on the world?

[00:46:22] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah, it’s funny because. I felt like this was, this is such a good question from a systems thinking perspective, because the point of systems thinking is connecting, no question.

Kinda those small things with the, with the large things. Um, so yeah, I had all, all these like potential ways of, of answering this, but the thing that. I think I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that. I’m not, um, I don’t know. It’s like, it’s not, it’s not a thing or anything that’s designed, but, you know, I’ve been thinking about trees and I actually have an example in the book about like how some neighborhoods have more trees than others.

And I was thinking about like, Just like the impact, like if we all planted trees in places where there were not trees, um, what kind of difference that would make from like a temperature, like a micro temperature perspective. Like literally during heat waves, you have some neighborhoods that are, you know, 20 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods simply because they don’t have foliage.

So it’s like, how can you. Have an impact kind of in a small way. And that might just be like, be a tree planting activist and go into those neighborhoods.

[00:47:42] Andy Polaine: That’s a great one. I mean, because it connects to so many other things. Cause in the book actually, you talk about how in LA trees were removed from, uh, lower socioeconomic, predominantly black neighborhoods so that the police helicopters could more easily..

[00:47:55] Sheryl Cababa: That’s right.

[00:47:56] Andy Polaine: …spot people from a crime, uh, from above and yeah. Yeah. So there’s a whole bunch of societal problems and, uh, biases and structural issues within, within all that. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s also a thing that, you know, the wealthier people are, the more they can afford to have a piece of land that you know isn’t built upon and rented out and so forth.

Um, Yeah, that’s a great one. Yeah, that’s a great one. I’m a big fan of trees. Well, yeah, thank you. Well, congratulations on getting your one out.

[00:48:22] Sheryl Cababa: So you can find me, um, on LinkedIn, just mm-hmm. Sheryl Cababa, I’m the only one there with that name. So you can ask me questions up there. Connect with me up there.

Follow me. Um, I’m also on Twitter, though, maybe a little less so lately in terms of, you know, checking it or what have you. . But yeah, you can, I know. It’s like, I feel like I’m just watching this, uh, community just sort of slowly fizzle out. Um, but you know, if you’re up there, yeah, you can, you can find me there. I’ll get a notification.

[00:48:55] Andy Polaine: You on Mastodon anywhere?

[00:48:57] Sheryl Cababa: I am not on Mastodon.

[00:48:59] Andy Polaine: Come on, come on. Get it. Come on.

[00:49:00] Sheryl Cababa: I know. I. I honestly, I’ve been having this debate with myself. Do I need another? Like, should I just not do it?

[00:49:08] Andy Polaine: Um, oh, that’s probably also not bad, but it’s nice. At least I found it quite, um, uh, uh, good. I, you know, I don’t know, I’m, you know, middle-aged white guy, so it’s easy for me to say, cause I know there’s, uh, people have been, um, not finding it so comfortable.

But I think if you find the right place, it’s a, um, it reminded me of Twitter in the early days and it was quite nice.

[00:49:27] Sheryl Cababa: Yeah. I’ll admit I have lurked a little bit. Okay. And that has like, I don’t know, maybe, maybe you’ll push me over the edge by, ok.

[00:49:36] Andy Polaine: Alright. So Twitter, I’ll put a link to, to the book, to LinkedIn and, uh, put it all in the, in the show notes.

Thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Yeah, thank you so much. This has been a really great conversation, and also congratulations on the anniversary of your book. It’s a classic. Thank you.

You’ve been listening to me, Andy Polaine, on Power of Ten. You can find me at on Mastodon, @apolaine on Twitter, or where you can find more episodes, check out my coaching practice and online courses, as well as sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note.

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