Upstream: The quest to solve problems
before they happen, by Dan
Picnicking beside a river, you see a child floating
down, in danger of drowning. You and your friend dive in and save her, only to
see another coming down, and another and another. Suddenly you see your friend
climb out the river and start running. “Where are you going?”
“I am going to sort out the person who is
throwing children in the river!”
Author Dan Heath uses the word ‘upstream’ for
efforts intended to prevent problems before they happen.
“So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward
reaction rather than prevention?” he asks. Primarily, because the further
upstream we go back, the more complex the solution. It is easier to call HR to
recruit a new executive than it is to ensure that the organisation is a deeply
satisfying place to work.
The US will spend billions more recovering from the
coronavirus because they slashed funding for Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
And similar examples abound.
“My goal in this book is to convince you that
we should shift more of our energies upstream,” Heath explains.
There are three forces that push us downstream,
impeding our ability to prevent problems.
The first is what Heath calls ‘problem blindness’,
the response to problems that is similar to the way we treat the weather –
there is nothing we can do about it.
The second is that no one takes ownership of the
problem. Stanford researchers, in a paper exploring this sense of reluctance,
wrote “what often prevents people from protesting is not a lack of
motivation to protest, but rather their feeling that they lack the legitimacy
to do so.”
The third is ‘tunnelling’, where people react to
problems rather than prevent them. Tunnelling confines us to short-term,
reactive thinking. In the tunnel, there’s only forward. When people experience
scarcity—of money or time or mental bandwidth—the harm is not that the big
problems crowd out the little ones. The harm is that the little ones crowd out
the big ones.
If upstream thinking is so obviously correct and
unequivocally more effective in eliminating recurring problems, why is it so
rare? Heath identifies seven significant barriers to upstream thinking and
provides solutions from lessons learned from real world successes.
Heath’s three forces described above, and the seven
barriers (of which I will describe some below) are the same whether you lead a
for-profit-business, a public benefit organisation or a government department.
How will you unite all the
right people who are needed to solve the problem?
In 1998, 42% of Icelandic 15- and 16-year-olds had
been drunk in the previous 30 days. Almost a quarter smoked cigarettes daily,
and 17% had already tried cannabis. Among 22 European countries, Icelandic teenagers
had the second-highest rate of accidents or injuries related to substance abuse.
Today’s Icelandic teenagers have grown up in a country where substance abuse is
As in many upstream efforts, the success was
achieved by ‘surrounding the problem’, recruiting a multifaceted group of
people and organisations, united by a common aim – “Drug-free Iceland”.
The campaign team solicited help from anyone who
was willing to assist: researchers, policymakers, schools, police, parents,
teenagers, singers/musicians, government agencies, private companies, churches,
sports clubs, athletes, and media members.
Surrounding the problem with the right people and aligning
their efforts toward preventing specific instances of that problem, was their
Who would need to be involved in your organisation?
How will you change the system?
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the
results it gets.”
Whether the results are good or bad, the system
through which the results are achieved is a complete success.
In 1967, 5 people died for every 100 million miles
driven. Fifty years later, fewer drunk drivers better roads, seat belts,
airbags and better braking technologies, reduced that number to 1 death per 100
million miles driven. The vastly improved system happened with no central
planner. Thousands of people, safety experts, transportation engineers and
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, tweaked the system so that millions of people are
Identifying the systems that need to change is critically
How will you get early warning of
When everything is cause for alarm, nothing is
cause for alarm.
The value of an early warning depends on whether
the warning gives sufficient time to respond. A car tyre that gives a 30-second
advance warning of a blowout, might save your life. A half-second warning is
LinkedIn discovered that the churn rate for
customers of their flagship product for recruiters was roughly 30%. On further investigation
they found that customers who used the product in the first 30 days were four
times more likely to continue using LinkedIn. So, they started using all the
resources they had been using to save customers, to onboard them properly so
they become users immediately.
How will you know you’re
What counts as success? If my laptop broke and you
fix it, that’s victory. With upstream efforts, success is not always
self-evident and is often misleading.
Consider a team that applauds itself for scoring
more runs. Is that because every team in the league is scoring more too,
because bowling talent has declined? The team that doubled its run rate barely
won any more games, which doesn’t align with their goal.
If the short measures – runs – starts becoming the goal,
players under pressure may start cheating. Here, succeeding with the measure
makes a mockery of the goal. Care must be taken which factors really measure
How will you avoid doing harm?
Systems are complicated. One need only consider the
ban of single use plastic bags that damage the waterways.
An estimated 100 billion bags that may not degrade
for hundreds of years, are used annually just in the US. Paper bags and
reusable bags are far better than plastic ones from the perspective of keeping
waterways clean, but they are worse in other ways.
A UK Environment Agency study calculated the “per
use” effects of different bags on climate change. You need to use a paper
bag 3 times and a cotton reusable bag 131 times to be on par with plastic bags’
overall effect on the environment. Manufacturing paper bags and cotton reusable
bags causes more air and water pollution than plastic, and they are much harder
Is protecting waterways and marine life our goal,
or making the whole environment better?
Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be
designed and redesigned. We need to rely on careful experimentation, guided by
feedback loops. We should think very carefully before proceeding where systems
are involved. Upstream work hinges on an attitude of care and humility.
Who will pay for what does not
A person will pay if they will reap the rewards and
what comes out of the pocket goes back in. But what if many units in the organisation
or country will benefit, unequally? Getting funding for many pockets is a
In the case of climate control, those who are
responsible for the problem (wealthy countries,) require a contribution in cash
or kind from poor countries who benefit from the solution, but did little to
cause the problem.
Not considering these questions will make upstream
success ever harder. Considering them may go a long way to improve your
operations and I cannot think of any time when that consideration is more
I consider this the most useful book I have read in
years. It reads easily and is rich with examples and nuances.
Insights High +—- Low
Practical High -+— Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults
internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of ‘Strategy that
Works’ and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own.