Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

by Dan Heath

Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen tackles the impossible issue of dealing with the consequences of problems you can’t seem to predict. While some problems arise from repeated patterns that can be analyzed, others are a result of randomness. Regardless, this book goes through the steps you can take to avoid these problems entirely, or reduce the damage they cause. It will also help you to think about problems more critically and identify the most effective way to target any issue.

Summary Notes

The Three Barriers to Upstream Thinking

“When you spend years responding to problems, you sometimes overlook the fact that you could be preventing them.”

Upstream thinking is commonly referred to as proactive thinking, however, this fails to describe its full essence. It is not just about the steps that you take to prevent problems. It’s also about the direction those steps are heading in. Are your actions ensuring a lasting solution to your problems?

Predicting the future is impossible, which makes coming up with effective solutions challenging. Luckily, there are steps you can take to turn the odds in your favour. You must first recognize the three main barriers to upstream thinking, which are problem blindness, lacking ownership of problems, and tunnelling. Each of these obstacles is very common but easy to avoid once you are aware of them. In essence, what you need to do is keep an eye out for careless errors, take action to solve problems, and identify underlying issues to come up with lasting solutions.

Remember, upstream thinking is optional. Unlike regular problem solving, where you are putting out fires one after another, upstream thinking is a choice you make to ensure those fires never get started in the first place. No problem is inevitable - and adopting the right attitude is the first step forward.

Actions to take

Seven Questions For Upstream Leaders - #1: How Will You Unite The Right People?

“If you want to change the rules, you’ve got to change the power inputs so that the outcome will be different.”

No upstream effort will be successful without a good, solid team - which is why this is always the first step that should be taken. Upstream work is very similar to volunteer-based work, i.e., work that someone chooses to do rather than being obligated to do it. The important thing here is the person’s choice - people who participate in activities because of an innate desire to do so will contribute more enthusiastically, come up with creative solutions and be more committed overall.

Once you’ve formed a solid team ready to tackle the problem, you’ll need to organize them. If you give people a clear direction to follow, they’ll have the structure to work consistently towards solving the problem. Play to their strengths - assign people roles that they can carry out confidently, passionately and well.

Actions to take

#2: How Will You Change The System?

“A well-designed system is the best upstream intervention.”

Teams are a type of system, and systems function just as they are designed. This applies to your organization but also to the problems you face. If the same problem keeps occurring because of a flaw in your system, then your system needs to be re-evaluated before anything can change. 

Upstream efforts target the root cause of a problem to drive it out entirely. It’s therefore essential that the actual cause of the problem, i.e., the specific system that needs to be changed. This can get muddled when a problem seemingly intersects at multiple systems, however, there is always one main system that needs to be changed for the problem to be effectively solved.

However, keep in mind that systems tend to have a degree of permanence and it’s often tough to effect any sort of change. It’s important to be strategic about it - both in what you do, and how you do it.

Actions to take

#3: Where Can You Find A Point of Leverage?

“If you rig up a system that makes it easy for me to move the world, then I shall move the world!”

There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem, it’s all in the way you approach it. The important thing is to figure out what the weak points of the system are, so that you can leverage them in order to tackle the problem. This is a slightly more indirect approach, but it is effective nonetheless.

For example, a key problem in the healthcare industry is related to linguistics. When asked about their medical history or symptoms, patients often leave important details out, simply because they don’t have the medical knowledge to understand what is essential information. So, doctors and nurses must use careful and precise language with patients.

As with all upstream efforts, it’s best to start early - and with this particular problem, the education system was targeted. First-year medical students were partnered with practice patients. The fresh minds of new students were leveraged to help these future doctors understand the overall picture of treating patients. After working with these volunteer patients for a year, the medical students better understood how to communicate with their patients and provide holistic care.

Actions to take

#4: How Will You Get Early Warning Of The Problem?

“To anticipate problems, we need eyes and ears in the environment.”

Early warnings of a problem can be useful, but it depends on the severity of the problem, and whether you have sufficient time to respond. There’s not much use in getting an early warning that the lightbulb on your bedside table is going to burn out, however, knowing that the lighthouse bulb is going to burn out is valuable information. Therefore, it’s important to not only be able to predict problems better, but to also focus those predictions on serious problems you have enough time to do something about.

The best way to accurately predict the future is to rely on information and patterns from the past. As a simple example, let’s say the trash can in your living room keeps getting knocked over. The pattern here is that a trash can in the way will keep getting knocked over. The solution is to move it to the corner of the room. 

With more complex problems, more data is needed. This is the basis of predictive modelling techniques. However, technology is not always needed for this predictive power. If you turn your focus at work to gathering more information, you’ll better understand the projects you are working on and will be able to see where things are going to go wrong. Even simple conversations with a coworker could shed light on the fact that they are struggling to complete their part on time - this would then give you enough time to help them out, delegate someone else to share the workload, etc.

Actions to take

#5: How Will You Know You’re Succeeding?

“Choosing the wrong short-term measures can doom upstream work.”

So how do you measure your success - how do you check whether your efforts are leading somewhere productive? Keep in mind that along the way, you’ll experience at least a few “ghost victories” - i.e., you think you’ve succeeded when you’ve not. There are three main types of this:

  1. When your “success” is just a byproduct of another project’s success

Example: Nationwide measures could lead to big drops in city crime rates

  1. When your measures of success are not aligned with what you hope to accomplish

Example: An initiative to fix up neighbourhoods based on community reports may result in only the more affluent neighbourhoods being worked on - as these are the people more likely to call in

  1. When you cut corners to meet your measures of success - but in doing so, you compromised your success in actually achieving what you intended

Example: A new rule that punishes hospitals if they make a patient wait more than 4 hours could result in ambulances with patients being made to wait outside the hospital grounds

It is important to be aware of these three types of ghost victories, and evaluate all successes to ensure they are true. In fact, when developing your solution, you should consider the possibility of these types of ghost victories occurring, and come up with contingency plans to achieve actual success despite any hiccups.

Actions to take

#6: How Will You Avoid Doing Harm?

“Experimentation leads to learning, which leads to better experiments.”

Simply achieving your targets isn’t enough if you’ve caused a lot of damage along the way. After all, what’s the point of fixing one problem if you’re just going to create several others in the process? 

When you start to approach problems with a big-picture perspective, you’ll start to see the far-reaching consequences of potential decisions. For example, a big issue in the environmental sector is human interference with the earth’s natural flora and fauna. At face value, it may seem like a straightforward situation - we need to develop land for our towns and cities, we need to hunt animals and harvest plants for food and other valuable products, etc. However, each instance of this causes a ripple effect in nature. History shows that these effects can have devastating consequences, for example, causing a species to eventually become endangered or extinct.

This is why it is absolutely essential that you never lose track of your original vision and evaluate potential decisions based on how much harm they could cause. Minimize the number of unnecessary ripples you cause, and you will reduce the number of negative consequences that come hand-in-hand.

Actions to take

#7: Who Will Pay For What Does Not Happen?

“Prevention is better than cure.”

Knowing how to effectively deal with problems when they happen is certainly a valuable skill. However, it’s also important to focus part of your resources on measures that would prevent these problems from occurring. When “nothing” happens and your work runs smoothly, it means you’re doing a good job! 

Solutions that focus on prevention are always more cost and time effective than those that only look to fix the immediate issue. For example, let’s say a specific low-income district has high rates of youth crime and the threat of juvenile detention has not been doing much to curb this. Focusing on preventing these youth from committing crimes in the first place would reap much better results. An example would be providing low-income mothers with the education and skills they need to parent their kids effectively - perhaps by matching them with registered nurses who would visit them regularly throughout their pregnancy and the first two years of the child’s life. These children would grow up better adjusted and less likely to turn to crime.

When you focus on preventing problems, you can create real change. Although it may seem like you are doing nothing on the surface, in reality, you are creating the foundation for success.

Actions to take

Far Upstream

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Many of the problems we experience tend to be recurring or symptoms of a root cause. However, some problems are unpreventable (like natural disasters), or uncommon (like an IT network getting hacked). Luckily, the same strategies will work for these problems too and will mitigate any damage done.

Consider the movie Chicken Little - what if his consistent warnings actually stopped the sky from falling? This is known as the prophet’s dilemma, and it can be applied to real-world problems. After all, humans tend to make mistakes and using technology to analyze patterns and predict future trends is getting easier and easier. 

One of the biggest factors in the success of upstream efforts is your attitude. Those who are positive and determined to achieve their goals are more likely to succeed. When you analyze the habits of successful people, you’ll realize that these people all have one thing in common - they are unsatisfied with normal and want better.

Actions to take

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