Are You Looking At The Wrong Part Of The Problem?

In business, we are frequently told that to build a successful company we have to find an answer to the customer’s problem. In government, the equivalent guidance to public officials is to solve the problems faced by constituents. This is good guidance, as far as it goes, except that we need to know what the problem really is before we can solve it.

Before those of us who are results-oriented, problem solvers jump into action, we need to make sure that we are looking at the right part of the problem. And that’s what Dan Heath’s new book, “Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen” is all about.

Heath, along with his brother Chip, has brought us such useful books as “Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” and “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard”.

As usual for a Heath book, it is well written and down to earth, but contains important concepts and research underneath the accessible writing.

He starts with a horrendous, if memorable, story about kids:

You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water — a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another…and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

 

Going upstream is necessary to solve the problem at its origin — hence the name of the book. The examples in the book range from important public, governmental problems to the problems of mid-sized businesses. While the most dramatic examples are about saving lives, the book is also useful for the less dramatic situations in business.

Heath’s theme is strongly, but politely, stated:

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

This reminds me of a less delicate reaction to this advice: “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to find time to drain the swamp”. And I often told my staff that unless you took some time to start draining the swamp, you are always going to be up to your waist in alligators.”

He elaborates and then asks a big question:

We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Firefighters extinguish flames in burning buildings, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many fires, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

His answer is that, in part, organizations have been designed to react — what I called some time ago the “inbox-outbox” view of a job. Get a problem, solve it, and then move to the next problem in the inbox.

Heath identifies three causes that lead people to focus downstream, not upstream where the real problem is.

  • Problem Blindness — “I don’t see the problem.”
  • A Lack of Ownership — “The problem isn’t mine to fix.”
  • Tunneling — “I can’t deal with the problem right now.”

In turn, these three primary causes lead to and are reinforced by a fatalistic attitude that bad things will happen and there is nothing you can do about that.

Ironically, success in fixing a problem downstream is often a mark of heroic achievement. Perhaps for that reason, people will jump in to own the emergency downstream, but there are fewer owners of the problem upstream.

…reactive efforts succeed when problems happen and they’re fixed. Preventive efforts succeed when nothing happens. Those who prevent problems get less recognition than those who “save the day” when the problem explodes in everyone’s faces.

Consider the all too common current retrospective on the Y2K problem. Since the problem didn’t turn out to be the disaster it could have been at the turn of the year 2000, some people have decided it wasn’t real after all. It was, but the issue was dealt with upstream by massive correction and replacement of out-of-date software.

Heath realizes that it is not simple for a leader with an upstream orientation to solve the problem there, rather than wait for the disaster downstream.

He asks leaders to first think about seven questions, which explores through many cases:

  • How will you get early warning of the problem?
  • How will you unite the right people to assess and solve the problem?
  • Where can you find a point of leverage?
  • Who will pay for what does not happen?
  • How will you change the system?
  • How will you know you’re succeeding?
  • How will you avoid doing harm?

Some of these questions and an understanding of what the upstream problem really is can start to be answered by the intelligent use of analytics. That too only complicates the issue for leaders, since an instinctive heroic reaction is much sexier than contemplating machine learning models and sexy usually beats out wisdom 🙂

Eventually Heath makes the argument that not only do we often focus on the wrong end of the problem, but that we think about the problem too simplistically. At that point in his argument, he introduces the necessity of systems thinking because, especially upstream, you may find a set of interrelated factors and not a simple one-way stream.

[To be continued in the next post.]

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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