As part of our monthly series featuring the work of our colleagues at SecondMuse, today we learn more about systems thinker Monica Price Cohen. Monica brings together a passion for systems thinking, facilitating collective impact and building community. She has worked with clients in multiple industries to solve complex business and people challenges. Prior to consulting, Monica worked for many years in the tech industry at Cisco Systems and has a strong analytical background.
1) You came to SecondMuse through an impressive career as a Senior Software Engineer at Cisco Systems. Tell us more about your experience in the tech industry and how you got to SecondMuse?
I have always enjoyed solving problems, and when I finished university, designing and creating software seemed like the ultimate career in solving problems. As I worked my way through various roles at Cisco, I realized that technical problems, although sometimes times difficult to solve, are not nearly as complex as the challenges that we face in social and human systems. Bringing together multiple stakeholders from different perspectives is a whole different kind of challenge, muddled with many nuances. Through these experiences, and as I moved into leadership, a new lens on problem-solving was emerging for me. My desire was no longer to solve problems per se, but to help others collectively solve problems together. I became fascinated by the psychology of people working together and social systems in general.
In 2012, I left tech on an intuition that I was due to set a new path and entered into a behavioral science master’s program in organizational leadership where I was exposed to systems thinking. This was a game changer for me. It was a framework to see the complexity in social systems, yet not get overwhelmed by it. It was a method to bring people together to see each other’s perspectives and help infuse empathy and understanding while working toward collaborative solutions. Then there was systems mapping, which speaks to my technical, geeky side to boot! After finishing school, I spent some time exploring a few business ideas and consulting. When SecondMuse showed up on my radar, the move to join this amazing team felt completely right. I love that my background of varied professional experiences is in use every day at SecondMuse to do meaningful work. Just the other day I did a bit of coding too!
2) You have leadership skills in helping students become instruments of innovation. What are some ways to help people think big and outside the box?
There are many skills that are helpful for thinking outside of the box. And there are models and frameworks that have been created to help people do just that. Some of them are good and I’ve used them in different ways. However, I believe that there are two ingredients that are crucial for creating innovative spaces:
- First: Collaboration: Don’t go it alone. Collective genius has been written about many times, so I don’t need to go into it more here, but I have seen it happen over and over in successful ideation sessions. The ideas that are generated start out at one place and then grow and morph into something that was not possible without the input of others. Sometimes, even just having a single thought partner is all we need.
- Second: Emergence. Emergence is something that I really only became aware of about five years ago. I’m sure that I had experienced it before but didn’t really know what it was. Previously, I would have described it as synergy. It was just something that came out of the group, no one person was the creator alone. Today, I would add that there is an energy that runs through the group. Sometimes this is cultivated by one person and their ability to bring everyone to an open place of exploration, sometimes it is a group of like-minded people who are all completely present in the moment of creating. In either case, when ego is lost and the group becomes more important than the individual parts, amazing and unexpected things happen.
3) Systems thinking and mapping as a way to develop shared purpose is one of your strengths. How do you apply that to the work you do?
Systems thinking is another form of storytelling. To tell the story well, we aspire to see all sides of the situation. Great stories are not a simple antagonist and protagonist but have a complex web of three-dimensional characters with their own perspectives and idiosyncrasies. In the work that we do, systems thinking is one way of exposing this story. We strive to bring insight into many perspectives, and to look inside ourselves to understand our own three-dimensional nature. When it comes together, the beauty in it is finding empathy for the once-antagonist of our story and for ourselves. In the work that we do at SecondMuse, creating the environment for telling this story and empathy building is the crucial work. Once we get there, the groundwork has been laid for moving forward together and creating a shared purpose– a logical next step.
4) You are a working mother of two — what do you like doing outside work to center yourself?
Making space for centering, outside of work and general life busyness is tricky. I live in the Pacific Northwest and I grew up in Colorado and getting outside has always been where my fondest memories have been made. As a family, we try to make it up to the mountains regularly which I love. Since the fall, I have been taking a morning walk through a wooded park near my house. It has been amazing to watch the foliage week by week and see the changing of the seasons at a micro level. It also helps set perspective even on a busy day.