Downstream to upstream

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5 min, 921 words

Categories: book life

How do we move from solving downstream reactive problems to upstream proactive solutions?

In the book Upstream by Dan Heath he describes how we can look to solve problems upstream of us, before they actually become problems, and the challenges of implementing this.

He highlights that there are three main barriers to achieving this:

Problem blindness is the first of three barriers to upstream thinking. When we don’t see a problem, we can’t solve it.

A problem could be hidden in a complex process or has many moving parts. It could be that we don't know we have a problem as we have nothing to compare it with or our expectations are wrongly set. An example might be along the lines of, we are getting poor fuel economy from our car however as we have nothing to compare it with we don't realise and so don't address it.

Assuming we can identify a problem, how can we make changes to address that and then measure the success of them?

To succeed upstream, leaders must: detect problems early, target leverage points in complex systems, find reliable ways to measure success, pioneer new ways of working together, and embed their successes into systems to give them permanence.

The next barrier highlighted is one of ownership. We might identify an issue but we need buy in from those parties that could address it. This can prove difficult sometimes as they may not be the ones that directly benefit from the solution. It could be that they see increased costs or more resources required but they are not the beneficiary of the improvement. It is difficult for them to justify their involvement even though there could be a significant impact.

This lack of ownership is the second force that keeps us downstream. The first force, problem blindness, means: I don’t see the problem. (Or, This problem is inevitable.) A lack of ownership, though, means that the parties who are capable of addressing a problem are saying, That’s not mine to fix.

This can be addressed by trying to answer the following questions:

Paying for upstream efforts ultimately boils down to three questions: Where are there costly problems? Who is in the best position to prevent those problems? And, how do you create incentives for them to do so?

The last question is probably the key and the hardest to answer, especially if the owner of the problem gains little from the results. We might need to identify other ways that they can benefit.

The last barrier is referred to as tunnel vision.

When people are juggling a lot of problems, they give up trying to solve them all. They adopt tunnel vision. There’s no long-term planning; there’s no strategic prioritization of issues. And that’s why tunneling is the third barrier to upstream thinking—because it confines us to short-term, reactive thinking. In the tunnel, there’s only forward.

I know that if I have a lot on my plate it can become a bit overwhelming to the point of not being able to progress any of the tasks. It is a bit like the study where consumers were given a large choice and asked to pick one. Counterintuitively when a consumer is presented with too much choice they are unable to pick one to buy.

If we have a whole set of issues to deal with then our brain struggles to cope and it will only focus on one of them. It will take a short term view and not take the wider picture and the whole set of problems into account. This means it can be difficult to produce the optimal solution which requires a broader view.

With all that said, focussing on upstream problems can lead to some successes:

At the EMS command center in Syosset, New York, there’s a room that looks a bit like NASA’s Mission Control Center. Large screen monitors cover the walls, featuring maps of the areas covered by Northwell EMS. The real-time location of all the ambulances is pinpointed on the maps, and each one is surrounded by a halo that shows the area it could reach within 10 minutes. When a 911 call comes in, the closest ambulance to the emergency is deployed. Then all the other nearby ambulances shift their locations dynamically in order to fill the hole left by the deployed ambulance. It’s an incredibly sophisticated system, and it makes a difference. Northwell’s average response time is about 6.5 minutes, compared with a national average of 8 minutes.

It is also not always about solving the problem, sometimes it is about at least making some difference to the problem:

With some forethought, we can prevent problems before they happen, and even when we can’t stop them entirely, we can often blunt their impact.

I run a team of software engineers developing a product. This has got me thinking about what sort of problems can we solve by taking an upstream view? It is an exercise I am about to start. It might include preventing certain security issues, adjusting working practices or taking a customer viewpoint and identifying their potential pain points.

Let's see where it leads - or should that be flows?


Upstream by Dan Heath

The Jam Experiment

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