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Q&A with Derek Cabrera

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Derek Cabrera , Faculty Director at Cornell University

How could you describe your career path in a few words?

Forrest Gumpian. A string of seemingly random events that retrospectively look like a plan all along. I started out for twenty years as a mountain guide and then became a systems scientist working on the problem of adaptive cognition (i.e., agile thinking or systems thinking).

How do you consider agile practices have transformed organizations over the last two years?

I think agile is really not new at all. In fact it is very very old and was invented over billions of years by evolution. So, in the past two years, what has occurred is a deeper listening to and awareness of the principles and rules that nature has to teach. In Systems Thinking we fit our mental model to reality. This is the opposite of confirmation bias, where we fit reality to our mental model. I sometimes say, avoid confirmation bias... keep it real. This is the foundation of agile because adaptive action is predicated on feedback from the environment (reality), otherwise it is just a slow form of suicide. The more we focus on the timeless tenants that underlie agile and less on the passing fads, the better our practice becomes.

What successful cases of agile transformations have you had the opportunity to note and which have marked you so much?

Too many to count. But there is a pattern across them. When we stop trying to fix problems and instead focus on understanding systems the real problems and solutions reveal themselves. Systems (e.g., processes, products, customers, markets, etc.) are always telling us about themselves and if we learn to listen to what they are telling us, we realize that the “solution” is relatively simple. Stop trying to solve problems and start understanding systems.

Is adaptive ability (agile) baked into the universe? Will we realize it before its too late? Before our business fails, before societies crash, families dissolve?. Will we realize it soon enough and begin building the deep practice?

Yes, I think the challenges have to do with being confused by the barrage of frameworks, models, practices, etc. and missing the forest for the trees. The need to be adaptive is universally baked in. Being vigilant about this adaptivity is what’s difficult. We are all a bit like the boiling frog where we will jump out when thrown in the hot water but boil to death if we are placed in lukewarm water on a slow flame. We must be vigilant with the basics and follow the science (reality) rather than the fad. The science of adaptivity is simple: 

  • Test your mental model: Increase iterations and feedback between mental models and reality; 

  • Adapt your mental model: Fit mental models to reality (systems thinking) not reality to mental models (confirmation bias);

  • Ask systemic (dsrp) questions: increase the probability that your mental model fits reality by asking deep questions based on challenging distinctions, organizing part-whole systems, drawing relationships, and taking perspectives (i.e. dsrp).

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