System-shifting Product Management

What is systems-shifting product management?

Building on the brilliant exploratory work into systems-shifting design conducted by Cat Drew, Cassie Robinson and Jennie Winhall, this collection of essays explore how Product Management can adopt a system-shifting perspective.

Why is it important for product management to take a systems-shifting perspective?

Technology products affect billions of people. It affects them and their world in complex and unpredictable ways that our current modes of thinking are not equipped to deal with. Product Managers need a better framing for the collective power they hold in making decisions about the effects technology has on people, cultures, societies, and the environment.

What might systems-shifting product management look like?

Built on three pillars:


Helps product managers understand the problems of the humanistic approach we currently use. Provides the philosophical underpinning for a different perspective.

Rejecting the problematic assumptions in Humanism and de-centering the human whilst expanding the circle of our moral concern.


Helps product managers

Theory of change

To guide product managers towards thinking about achieving outcomes and impacts in ways

How might we consider the shift?

Fundamentally, product management is about solving problems. The shift in how product management thinking and practice solves problems in a modern, interconnected world will require a move away from a focus on users and linear cause-and-effect to ways in which multiple actors interact with complex systems.

As an emergent practice, but we can think in terms of moving from an existing approach or body of knowledge to something alternative and new.

Affecting individual users… …affecting systems actors.
Linear outcomes……designing for unintended consequences.
User centered design……social design

Product managers seek, through their products, to bring about an expected and predictable outcome, often as the result of a change in their users. A product causes a behaviour in users, that behaviour change causes an outcome. But this expectation of a linear outcome from affecting a single user doesn’t take into account the wider impact on that person, other people that might be affected by that behaviour change, the cultural, societal or environmental impacts.


A Leverage Points Framework for System-shifting product management

The Center for Humane Technology’s Leverage Points Framework offers an example of achieving product outcomes at different points on a lever.

How ride-sharing products save lives

Ride-sharing services cause deaths and save lives, but does any product manager have a spreadsheet for that? Are they considering the wider impacts of their product?

Systems thinking for product managers

Modern products are complex interrelated systems where a change in one feature can have a drastic knock-on effect on other parts of the product, and where the products usage can have vast unexpected consequences outside of the product on its users, non-users, communities, culture, society and the climate. 

Resources & reading


Doughnut Economics proposes an economic mindset that’s fit for the 21st century context and challenges.

The works of Donella Meadows


Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting


Foundations for Humane Technology online course

This is a work in progress, so the ideas are likely to change over time