Author Dan Heath has written a new book entitled Upstream, which outlines approaches to solving problems before they happen. Or as your mother may have said, “it’s better to have an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure.” Consider this abbreviated parable attributed to Irving Zola. Suppose you and a friend are having lunch outside near a river when you both hear yelling from the river and see a child who is drowning. Your friend jumps into the river to successfully rescue the child when another drowning child appears in the river. You jump in this time and save that child. Then another child…another…another. Finally, you see your friend getting out of the water to head up a path. You demand to know where he is going. He answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water!”
Upstream is an approach to prevention and thinking about the barriers to it. I describe it as a mindset. When I was CEO of Battelle for Kids, our Board Chair who was the CEO of world’s largest nonprofit (Battelle Memorial Institute), wisely asked me if our organization had a one or two single points of failure. Those are those things that if they happened would create real havoc, cost, and failure. I pointed to a couple that kept me up at night and he suggested I think not about what I’d do if those events happened but rather what I could do to more likely ensure they NEVER happened. Think about it now. BEFORE it happens. And take appropriate action.
Another example I offer from my experience comes as school superintendent when our district was in a largescale construction and renovation project. One of our school board members asked the rest of the board, in light of being presented several change orders by the general contractor, “Why is there always enough money to pay for expensive changes to our project but there was never enough money to do it right in the first place?“ Amen. Change orders are often downstream business.
Heath argues that problem blindness, a lack of ownership, and tunneling are three common barriers to upstream thinking. I’ll add resources to that list. I mean who hasn’t been part of an enterprise where the right arm didn’t know what the left arm was doing? Continued a practice that didn’t make sense because that’s “how we have always done it”? Or as the classic line goes —remembering your goal was the drain the swamp when you are up to your tail in alligators. That is not to say that all problems are preventable. They aren’t. Maybe we fail to think about second order consequences. Think about the problem of cobras in India during the UK’s colonial rule there. To solve the problem a bounty on cobras was declared and folks were paid for skins to get rid of the snakes. What happened? Some folks began farming cobras and by the time the government disbanded the incentives, the problem was worse. Bad things happen unexpectedly, and we do our best to plan coordinated, thoughtful, and effective responses. But responses have their own impact and effect.
Donella Meadows, biophysicist and systems thinker, writes “Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them…we can’t control systems…but we can dance with them. “
If this pandemic has done anything productive, let’s hope it has created upstream thinking. And with responses, more upstream thinking. Working more effectively with systems. Asking yourself, what keeps you awake and what are you doing about it?