Systems Thinking for Emergency Managers

Derek Cabrera:  Its that individual agent making an individual decision, and all those decisions add up to what you see that you don’t like.

Todd DeVoe:     Hi, welcome to EM Weekly, your emergency management podcast. This week we are talking to Dr. Derek Cabrera, and he’s an internationally recognized expert in metacognition, and that’s basically thinking about thinking and epistemology, which is the study of knowledge, human and organizational learning and education. He completed his Ph.D. in post-doctoral studies at Cornell University and, served in the Faculty of Cornell and a researcher at the Santa Fe Institute. And He leads the Cabrera research lab. His own research labs. So this is the guy who we want to talk to about systems thinking and how do we apply systems thinking to the world of emergency management.

Todd DeVoe:     I really was excited to get him on the show. I hope you guys enjoy the conversation.

Todd DeVoe:     Well, let’s get to the interview.

Todd DeVoe:     Derek, welcome to EM Weekly.

Derek Cabrera:  Thanks for having me.

Todd DeVoe:     A little bit about your background here. You were a mountain guy, climbing mountains all over the place and then just decided to create a whole new process of thinking.

Derek Cabrera:  I wasn’t the best student in the world, so when I left high school, I really didn’t have a ton of choices in terms of jobs and things like that. But one of the things I was relatively good at was, you know, climbing mountains and that type of thing. So that became my first job out of high school, and that led to about 18 years as a career taking people up and down mountains all over the world. In the process of doing that, I was exposed to all kinds of systems that are in the mountains, whether it’s weather systems or you know, avalanche systems or snowpack systems or you know, gear. And although all those things are systems and also got exposed to groups of people and the social dynamics that are part of taking people up mountains.

Derek Cabrera:  So I would say I, it didn’t happen so quickly, over many, many years of guiding and watching people almost in a laboratory of the mountains, I began to see, this reoccurring theme of all these different systems coming together to create kind of a complex situation. And it was my job to sort of better understand that complex situation and make sure that it was safe and that, you know, nobody got hurt and those types of things. So I think as a result of that, I began thinking in systems and then quite a bit later realized that there was a field called systems thinking and then began a career as a researcher and a scientist to study those things.

Todd DeVoe:     In your talk that you did, when I first met you, you talked about the idea that as an individual human, we are insignificant to the world. In other words, you stand in the middle of the, and the mountains and the mountains do what they do regardless of what we do. And that got me thinking a little bit about what we do as emergency managers specifically when you have a Katrina or Superstorm Sandy coming down the pipe, it doesn’t really matter necessarily what the individual person does. The storm’s going to do what it does. We can’t stop it. How do we take the concept here of the systems thinking complex, incidents that are occurring and complicated incidents that are occurring and how do we manage those in the essence that super-storm sandy doesn’t care what we do?

Derek Cabrera:  I think that’s just sort of an important, almost philosophical, a beginning step, which is, you know, most of our day and most of our life is framed around people, and you know, our human relationships and the things we care about. And so we think those are the things that are, that are most important. But the truth is, you know reality doesn’t really think that way, and it doesn’t really think in human ways or value the things that humans’ value per se. And so we are kind of very small and spending a good portion of your life in the mountains or in those kinds of environments teaches you that pretty quickly. The big thing that I would say about systems thinking is that not too long ago maybe, you know in the thirties forties fifties systems thinking was really something people thought of like a general in an army surveying the battlefield and getting the big holistic picture.

Derek Cabrera:  And then people said, well we have this big holistic picture, but we need to fill it in with all the different details. And that led to a kind of yielding wildly complicated maps that were in many ways frustratingly useless because it was just so complicated. And today I think what we’re, what we’re evolving into in terms of systems thinking is realizing that while those that that picture of how complicated and complex things can be is is kind of overwhelming, that that picture is really an emergent property of what the system is designed to create. And so what we want to do is look for the underlying simple rules that are leading to that what we’re seeing. And in that sense, the picture might be very, very complex and kind of bewildering and confusing. But knowing fundamentally that that complexity has simplicity underneath is really, really important. And being able to look for and find that simplicity is critically important.

Todd DeVoe:     In systems thinking, we’re saying basically everything is sort of related, but at the same time does its own thing. Or am I simplifying that too much?

Derek Cabrera:  Well, I think in, in systems thinking, what we’re saying is that the world is very complex and that that complexity is often the result of the fact that things are interconnected a lot. And one thing over on the far on the left side of the system can have a big effect on something on the far right side of the system. So it’s not that they’re literally connected, but they’re interconnected eventually. And then the second thing that I think we’re getting at and systems thinking is the human factor, which is as systems thinkers, we’re trying to do something too or with, or because of this system and what we know from the last 50 or so years of studying cognitive science. And the mind is that humans are really, really biased. And we get things wrong quite a bit. And so systems thinking is kind of reconciling both those things. One is the systems part, there’s complexity, but there’s simplicity underneath, and we need to look for those underlying simple rules. And then the other is the thinking part, which is you might as well just start with the assumption that you’re wrong and that you’re biased and, and we’re better off kind of seeing that upfront then at the end.

Todd DeVoe:     Right. So this gets into the whole, uh, hairball theory, right?

Derek Cabrera:  It’s the idea that there are these, hairball problems or wicked problems and a huge part of systems thinking, and wicked problems are that the problems that we have are often the result of the mismatch between the way that the real world works and the way we think it works. And so a huge part of that one is understanding how the real world works. It works in complex systems that have underlying simple rules. And the other part is understanding how you work in observing that, that, that world. And the takeaway here is that you know, a lot of times you’re biased. You are being people, humans

Todd DeVoe:     In a case, sometimes our, our biases or our presumptions, really challenge us in our decision-making processes, especially in a crisis because we’re projecting our own, ideals specifically on what we think people should do. So, you know, go to the evacuation problems that we have. We’re assuming that the rational person wants to leave their home if they know a large storm is coming, but they don’t. And in the confuses managers in the sense of why aren’t people leaving and then it creates other problems. How can we use systems thinking and applying that to a problem like that?

Derek Cabrera:  That’s a great, great question and a great example because that really gets it all the different things we’ve been talking about. If you, if you think about evacuation and you take this view as the systems emergency planner or person in charge of the evacuation, you think to yourself, well, people are going to make rational choices. While we know that people don’t make rational choices or they don’t make purely economic rational choices, or they’re wrong, their rational choices are made up of many more factors or many fewer factors than perhaps what you would perceive them to be. And the negative outcome of that evacuation that you see that you don’t like is caused by individual agents, little people, millions of them all on the ground, making individual decisions. And that’s where the simplicity is. It’s that individual agent making an individual decision.

Derek Cabrera:  And all of those decisions add up to what you see that you don’t like. And so what, what you really have to do is understand how are those individual decisions made with what level of bias are they made towards leaning towards which type of bias are they making those decisions and how do you affect those individual decisions? And if you simply take kind of a rational approach to that, there’s a pretty high probability that it’s not going to work out the way that you think because people aren’t going to make decisions in that way.

Todd DeVoe:     So when, when we’re looking at making these decisions as far as seeing evacuation or any other kind of emergency notification that we’re putting out or even planning processes, how can we use the concepts of systems thinking to work through that problem? And make a rational, when I say rational, I am talking rational from the emergency management perspective, a rational decision on how, or projection on how people are going to react to what, when we do things.

Derek Cabrera:  What we talk about a lot as complex adaptive systems and these complex adaptive systems are based on, the, the idea that the emergent property is caused by the collective dynamics of agents following simple rules. Those agents, in this case, are people, families, etc. And the simple rules are whatever they’re using as a rule set to make the determination to do what the manager says or to not do what the manager says. And prior to the event, we need to spend more time with folks understanding what things are going into their decisions. For example, I might, you know, in a not very smart way, I might say to myself, well, if everybody leaves then there’s going to be tons of traffic, and I don’t want to sit in tons of traffic, which will cause me not to be able to leave anyway, so I might as well steady.

Derek Cabrera:  So that’s maybe governing, my decision now, what would convince me otherwise. And that’s obviously something you must do in between these crises is better to understand the decisions people made or would make or have made and why did they make those decisions. And then the other piece is understanding that when you have this emergency, those there’s going to be some portion of the population that doesn’t make the decision. So don’t plan on, people doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. Plan on people doing exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. That’s something we learned quite a bit working with clients in the mountains. A client will literally do exactly the opposite of what you tell them to do. Almost every time you get to the point where you sort of say, okay, I’m going to tell them to do X, they’re going to do Y, and I’m going to be ready to help them recover from doing Y. You know, because there’s a high probability that’s what they’ll do.

Todd DeVoe:     So that almost gets into the inversion, right. inverse thinking in that concept.

Derek Cabrera:  It really is understanding the system and not sort of judging the system. Like, boy, how can these people be so stupid? It’s not really that they’re stupid. It’s that they’re either, they’re not informed, they don’t understand it enough, or they’re understanding their local environment and putting, weighting their local environment more than their weighting the global environment. So the planner is kind of weighting things that are weighting , meaning w e I g, h t, a weighting things at the global level. But the individual agents are weighting things at a local level. And that difference in perspective can cause a difference in perception and a difference in action and a different difference in the emergent property of the big system, the big global system.

Todd DeVoe:     We’re really stepping down into like normalcy bias, decide based upon what we normally saw. kind of like the long going back to Katrina again, people always said, well, you know, we’ve held through six or seven other hurricanes that came through. We’re going to be able to hold through this one as well, compared to the fact that they weren’t taking the heating, the advice of emergency management. And so there’s a lot of different things that are, that are intertwining. So I think that’s why I think systems thinking to me it’s kind of exciting because we’re taking a look at all these different aspects of people’s behavior, but we can actually categorize them I suppose, and kind of pre-planned with them if you kind of approach things with the systems thinking.

Derek Cabrera:  That’s absolutely right. And if you think about like a modern business context, a lot of companies know now that you don’t just have one con customer, you have multiple personas and companies spend a lot of money and a lot of time understanding the different personas that make up their customer base. And in many ways, that’s what you’re talking about there. There are the people who are going to listen, and they’re going to do what they’re, what, what the government tells them to do, or the planner tells them to do. There are other people that are a different persona, and they’re going to receive that information in almost the opposite way to the first persona. And so, you must create a different set of persons, a different set of information and instructions for those types of people that are going to hopefully convince them to and leverage them towards doing the things that you, that you think are best.

Todd DeVoe:     So, Derek, talk about Plectica, what it is, and how people can find it.

Derek Cabrera:  Yeah. So, uh, there’s a number of products that we created just to, to help people do systems thinking better because the first thing is the concepts of systems thinking, but then there’s the doing of it. And in the doing of it, people really need tools that will help them do it. Just like a carpenter needs to know how to, how to do carpentry. But they also need tools. So one of the tools that we’ve created that we’re pretty excited about is called Plectica it’s a software, the systems mapping software that allows you to kind of just basically through clicking and dragging and moving things around. It allows you to create a systems map of any situation or any scenario or any, any system that you’re interested in and sort of better understanding. And what it’s using is the underlying system structures that we know about systems thinking structures.

Derek Cabrera:  But you don’t really need to know those in order to use the software you just get on and start clicking. You can make a card; you can label that card, anything you want to label it. You can add pictures or data or whatever to the car. Then you can relate cards to each other. You can group cards in various complex ways, and you can even, look at things from different perspectives. So you can look at a whole set of cards, which might represent a community from any perspective, from the planner’s perspective, from the agency perspective, from the, from the agent’s perspective, the people on the ground. You can look at it from different perspectives and sort of see, oh, you know, I’m looking at this from a planner perspective. But when I look at it from a, you know, homeowner with 200 bucks in the bank perspective, it looks pretty different.

Todd DeVoe:     I’ve been using it since you’re lectured us at the EMI and, playing with it and I put a little presentation together, and it made me look like smart. So thank you for that.

Derek Cabrera:  That’s great.

Todd DeVoe:     So how can people, you know, get more information on Plectica about, that system?

Derek Cabrera:  You can go to And you can go there and get on. It’s free, to begin with, and you can use, can learn it in, you know, five minutes or something like that. And then there’s lots of other help, help resources over on the right. And, we have books that sort of described the underlying ideas. We have a set of online training that you can take that range from, 10 minutes to two an hour to five hours, uh, to get better and better at it. But the, the net effect is just that you’re able to map very complex systems in, in a way that, you know, really all you need to be able to do is, you know, point and click and drag, uh, and you’re able to map, you know, any, any level of complexity. So I would go to and you can kind of start experiencing it. Plectica, by the way, it comes from the term Plectics, which is the study of how simplicity and complexity are highly interrelated. So back to what we were talking about before, that underlying this complexity that is so challenging, there is often a set of simple underlying rules.

Todd DeVoe:     You know, one of the things that in emergency management and specifically in, in emergency response and as a paramedic, we use this program called start triage. And, one of the things I always, I pulled from that long time ago, right, was the idea of starting where you stand to, you’re overwhelmed, you walk into this place, and there’s a bunch of issues going on and where do you start, and you start exactly where you’re at. And I think that if you can simplify yourself to that point to start where you stand and then you can figure out where you are and then what is important at that point I think is very important. I think that Plectics helps out with that. Especially in the planning process.

Derek Cabrera:  I haven’t heard that before. That’s a great term. I would just, I would extend that to say start where you stand, but to really understand the system, you have to, you have to stand in the places where most of the agents are standing because where they’re standing and what they’re seeing is going to determine their behavior. And then all of those behaviors are going to add up and exponential ways to create the absolute hairball mass that you need to deal with.

Todd DeVoe:     It’s always a hairball mess. One of the questions that I like to ask is what book, books, or publication do you recommend to somebody in emergency management? I’m going to twist it a little bit. So what book books or publication do you recommend to somebody who is really interested in learning more about systems thinking and complex systems and what we’ve been talking about?

Derek Cabrera:  I would recommend two different categories. The first is, uh, there are some great books on complexity if you want to understand kind of why complexity has underlying simple rules to it. Um, and, and some of those books are, are, you know, can range from accessible to slightly more technical, but I would recommend complexity, uh, by Mitchell Waldrip. I would also recommend complexity by Melanie Mitchell. I would recommend, the quark and the Jaguar by Marie Gellman, who was a Nobel prize-winning. He just recently passed. Those three books are really great kind of primers in complexity science. And why kind of against our better notions and intuitions why complexity has simplicity underlying it. And then if you want to get into the sort of systems thinking part, the cognitive aspect of how do you do these things. I would recommend our books, the systems thinking made simple and, flock not clock, which is, two different books. One is for systems thinking, and mapping and the other flock not clock is for the kind of like how to do you apply systems thinking to, organizations or at the organizational level.

Todd DeVoe:     We’ll put the links to those books. Um, uh, in the, in the show notes, if somebody is trying to get ahold of you, how could they find you?

Derek Cabrera:  Uh, you can just search my name online. you can email

Todd DeVoe:     Perfect. And again, if you guys are driving down the road and your pencils aren’t sharp, don’t worry, those will too. We’ll be in the show notes. All right, Derek. So if you could talk to all the emergency managers in the world at one time, what piece of wisdom would you give them?

Derek Cabrera:  I would just echo the simplicity underlies complexity that I understand that I mean, you guys deal with some of the most hairball complex systems in the world, and they’re not only are they complex, but they’re, life-threatening and there, right in your face happening right now. You know, some of the most kind of hairball problems are the ones that your audience deals with. But even that level of complexity has underlying simple rules to it if you can understand what the individual people, what rule set they’re following, and there is a rule set, and that in them following those simple rules that lead to the kind of craziness that you’re seeing. It can simultaneously get you to understand the complexity, also understand how to leverage that simple rule set or change that simple rule set over time or that type of thing. So, a lot of folks think that underlying complexity is complicated and the, what science is showing us, and research is showing us is that underlying complexity is a set of simple rules.

Todd DeVoe:     Well, Derek, thank you so much for your time today, and I appreciate everything that you’re doing.

Derek Cabrera:  Yeah, thank you. This was great.






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