Sarah Buhayar, Director, Foundation Strategy Office, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
How ID exec ed brought a systems view to intractable problems
After working in education, both as an instructor in the Chicago Public Schools and in leading operations for research studies, Sarah Buhayar wanted to learn new ways to frame and solve problems. During her early years at Gates, Buhayar completed ID Summer Camp, an executive education program offered by IIT Institute of Design.
In this interview, Buhayar talks with ID student Catherine Wieczorek (MDes 2021) about what she learned at ID and how it contributes to her work today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you make the transition from working directly with the community as a teacher to working at the organizational level in education?
After some time working as a teacher, I was able to wrap my head around what it was to be a good teacher. And then I realized that there are still so many barriers that prevented my students from being able to succeed in the classroom. There were very few barriers that I could actually take down as a teacher. That led me to look for alternative ways to try to address the problems that showed up in my classroom.
What I kept observing was a need for what I would now call a systems approach or a systems perspective. At the time, that wasn’t really the language in my head. I saw these organizations and systems and structures that were set up around my classroom. They either helped or hindered, and in my experience, more often they hindered.
So that sparked my interest in solving a different set of problems. I became really interested in organizations and how they were designed. It’s not just a collection of people in a room trying to work together but rather there are systems and structures and processes that help or hinder. From my vantage point as a teacher, understanding how these systems failed and how to influence positive change was what led me to move into different roles. I really wanted to address different kinds of problems, and to try to address the systems.
This is what initially brought me to business school. I had also realized that this is not unique to education. This is true in many fields. I wanted to not only receive training, but to also step back and take a look at how we might address these kinds of problems. I also wanted to think about leadership differently because I saw that there were leaders at all levels who managed, in spite of constraints, to be highly effective.
From my vantage point as a teacher, understanding how these systems failed and how to influence positive change was what led me to move into a different role. I really wanted to address different kinds of problems, and to try to address the [underlying] systems.
How did you find your way to ID?
Well, I should first acknowledge my husband [Andrew Buhayar] went to ID. He’s a designer and we could not be more different. At the time I was working for an economist on a large, traditional education research study. I was leading the operations, which meant working with six school districts to recruit teachers, and working with the teachers’ unions, the district, and the researchers to coordinate data collection in one thousand classrooms. I think that study was pretty amazing. It was a serious study and a great thing to work on.
Yet, I was continually frustrated that the voices and perspectives of teachers were not directly part of this research. I was looking for a different way of learning and a different way of framing the problem. This research study was one particular way of framing a problem. And it was one that made a lot of sense to me. I worked with these school districts to figure out what their next steps might be with the research results, or how to make sense of them. And in some cases, I felt like we weren’t quite asking the right question.
I was continually frustrated that the voices and perspectives of teachers were not directly part of this research.
And so honestly, it was my husband who encouraged me to get my head out of my spreadsheet. And he suggested taking a class at ID to help me approach problems in a very different way than I had been trained.
It was just a week, so I did not become a designer in a week. But that was what pushed me to see that I can put myself in a different kind of learning situation, which helps me look at this problem a little differently.
What was your experience like at ID?
So very practically speaking, it was one topic per day. Each morning we were with a professor, and then every afternoon we were out in the field. So it was a pretty condensed, high level introduction to some of the key skills and concepts.
And I think the biggest takeaway for me was that there are other ways to approach and think about problems. And that is useful to this day. I don’t typically rely on design frameworks, but it serves as a reminder that no matter the situation, or if someone is from another discipline, we can look at this problem in a totally different way and unlock something else.
The second big takeaway was about communication. For our group, we did a puppet show for our prototype. And Catherine, we don’t know each other, but if you knew me well, you would know that I don’t make puppets. I don’t draw. I write memos. I make spreadsheets. The Gates Foundation is my universe, right? And I was having a really hard time getting it, it felt sort of silly.
Have you ever written someone a memo about something and they didn’t really get it? Or they didn’t agree with you?
Well, did you ever think that maybe you needed to communicate in a way that wasn’t a memo?
When I spoke to Marty Thaler about my doubts, he asked, “Have you ever written someone a memo about something and they didn’t really get it? Or they didn’t agree with you?” I responded, “Yeah, sure.” And he said, “Well, did you ever think that maybe you needed to communicate in a way that wasn’t a memo?”
And today, it’s such a good reminder to think about whomever is on the receiving end of my memo or my spreadsheet, and that there might be a better way to communicate. In retrospect, I knew that from teaching because you always assume that all your kids are learning in different ways, but it’s easy to forget that with adults sometimes. So Marty’s feedback, and a class with Kim Erwin on communication, helped me always remember that communicating something with a puppet show might actually unlock something for somebody else.
How do you lead conversations about problem solving?
I think it helps that these are largely unsolvable problems [at Gates Foundation]. We’re not like wash, rinse, repeat. There’s something here that, for some reason, the world has not yet solved. And, it’d be very different if I were a design expert coming in and saying that I had a point of view about a different way to approach it. But my point of view is that there’s more than one way to do this. I think it helps that I’m not advancing a particular framework but verbalizing that we’re stuck.
Do you have any advice for ID students today?
I am a big believer in getting on-the-ground experience. For me that was being a teacher. For somebody else, it could be being a nurse or a doctor or whatever it is. I think it’s really hard to come in as an outside person in some sort of consulting capacity. If you haven’t done the work and you’re trying to help someone do better, it helps to have that experience. I think that’s really valuable.
Not everyone can have that experience for all the sectors you might work in, especially if you’re going into a consulting type place. But having experience in one area, I think also builds empathy and understanding and credibility that translates and transfers.
I am a big believer in getting on-the-ground experience. For me that was being a teacher.
Another piece is deciding whether you want to solve the problem from inside or from outside. That’s a big messy one. And there’s, obviously, no right answer. I worked in Chicago Public Schools and got to see how to change public schools from within. Then I reached the limit of what I personally could effectively do inside, so I tried to work on it from the outside. But there are limits to both. And there are opportunities in both. And there’s probably value in being on both sides of that. Just be clear about which one and why.
The first time you’re outside your area of expertise is super hard. Everything is 30 percent harder than it would have been if you were in your field. But I find that it gets easier and easier as you start to find patterns and start to know your own strengths and limitations better. For me it was learning where I was perhaps likely to make the wrong call early—and so I should be careful—versus where I should trust myself and my conclusions. That growth gets a little easier over time.