Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen – Dan Heath


"So often we find ourselves reacting to problems, putting out fires, dealing with emergencies. We should  shift our attention to preventing them" 

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a cycle of response? If you are familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix, this is like being stuck in Quadrant 1 or 3 and never getting to Quadrant 2 (Important, Not Urgent). In Upstream, Dan Heath explains that we stay downstream too much. We handle one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many crimes, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do we focus our efforts toward reaction rather than prevention? 

Upstream probes the psychological forces that push us downstream and how to overcome the barriers (problem blindness, lack of ownership, tunneling) so we can switch to an upstream mindset. Upstream delivers practical solutions for preventing problems rather than reacting to them. Dan compiled seven key  questions that Upstream Leaders should ask: 

▪ How can you get an early warning of the problem? (Deploy sensors, Look for predictors)

▪ How can you know you're succeeding? (Pre-game your measures, Use paired measures)

▪ How can you avoid doing harm? (Look beyond the immediate, Close feedback loops)

▪ Can you identify who will pay for what doesn't happen? (Align incentives, Stitch together pockets of value)

▪ How can you unite the right people? (Surround the problem, Use data for learning) 

▪ How can you change the system? (Fight for a systemic change) 

▪ Where can you find a point of leverage? (Get closer to the problem)

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