The title of this soon to be released book by Dan Heath intrigued me when I first heard about it. Who wouldn’t want to learn about how to solve problems before they happen?
When I was given the opportunity to get an Advance Reader’s Edition to read and review from the author, I was happy to accept. The title Upstream first of all would need a definition in order for me to sense the topic of the book by this New York Times bestselling coauthor of Made to Stick and Switch.
To begin to grapple with the definition it’s important to recognize the opposite word – downstream – and how they contrast from each other.
“Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred; upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.”
With excellent examples to demonstrate the scope of these two definitions, I was curious to learn more. One of those reasons was the certainty that all of us tend to do more downstream thinking than upstream thinking with one significant group as an exception. Mothers. Mothers spend much of their time looking out for what the child or children entrusted to them need to learn or do in order to be safe and experience success from birth onward. They look ahead almost innately to what things will be needed to prepare the child for what lays ahead.
My professional career as a Marriage and Family Therapist exposed me to learning about systems theories and models in order to be more effective at working with individuals, couples, and families. Systems thinking is the heart of upstream thinking. It means looking at everything that impacts or influences the problem within the system you may be seeking to improve, and too often we get involved with tunnel thinking and cannot see things through a systemic lens.
Dan Heath develops the concept of upstream through a series of stories and examples of what happens within industries, companies, health plans, school systems, businesses, and more that are stuck in the downstream reactive mode and then shows the consequence of moving into a broader system thinking upstream model.
Along the way he points out things that hinder upstream thinking and keep us stuck in so many ways including problem blindness (“I don’t see the problem” or “This problem is inevitable”) and lack of ownership (“That’s not mine to fix”) and tunnel vision.
It might sound like the focus is on “the big picture” and as I read the book it became evident that was not quite the answer because to do upstream thinking requires us to get close to and see the issue or problem firsthand. Yes, systems look at complex layers of things, but it begins by putting names and faces to what we want to change, not just data.
As the author looks at how to develop upstream thinking and feedback loops within and connecting various systems, you will discover a wealth of information pointing to how this concept can be applied in a vast cross section of what we are involved in daily including our individual lives. You will also learn the significant value of those feedback loops to begin to identify potential consequences that could create new problems if you miss seeing them.
“Upstream thinking is not just for organizations, it’s for individuals. Where there’s a recurring problem in your life, go upstream. And don’t let the longevity of the problem deter you from acting. As an old proverb goes, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’”
One thing is clear about upstream thinking – it means and requires action and it starts with a crucial lesson:
“You can’t help a thousand people, or a million, until you understand how to help one.”
I had no idea what I was in for when I began this book, but page by page I became more excited about the endless possibilities it opened up. This is a book you will want to add to your reading list no matter what your age or profession. In the weeks ahead it is likely you will read little nuggets I gained in the book.
Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath will be released on March 3, 2020.