How often do we become so lost in rescuing and firefighting that we fail to think upstream- to what’s causing a problem and ways to prevent it or lessen its impact? Imagine two friends picnicking by a river when suddenly they start seeing children floating down the river in need of rescue. They both dive in and begin pulling kids to safety. But the children keep on coming and the friends keep on rescuing – until finally one of them thinks to get out and walk upstream to try to stop whoever must be throwing in the children. Such is a parable shared by best-selling author Dan Heath, in his new book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.
TregoED process users will recognize elements of Problem Analysis and Potential Problem Analysis in this kind of ”upstream thinking.” Heath calls it “tunneling” when we get lost in the rescuing (or interim actions or band-aid solutions in our lingo). It is one of the 3 major barriers to upstream thinking. The other two barriers include:
- Problem blindness – failing to see the problem – getting so used to a problem that we see it as inevitable or expected, rather than something that is preventable or addressable.
- Lack of ownership – not seeing a problem as ours to fix – thinking that we are not responsible for or capable of doing anything to address it.
Chicago Public Schools See Results
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) went from a 52.4% graduation rate to 78% by simply changing the way they saw the problem. Heath describes how the low graduation rate had sadly almost become accepted as inevitable. However, using research that showed if freshmen stayed on track, they were much more likely to graduate, CPS reoriented the system to better support freshman. They set up freshman success teams, other supports, monitoring and policies that helped freshmen stay or get back on track. Solving the problem upstream ultimately improved the graduation rate by more than 25%.
Taking a Systems Approach
Upstream thinking requires taking a systems approach. It isn’t enough to only see what is in front of us. We have to think about what came before and how it’s all connected – adjustments made upstream impact things downstream. Consider how often we are caught up in dealing with various problems – high disciplinary referrals, low student achievement, spotty attendance, high turnover, etc. Perhaps these even seem inevitable and beyond our sphere of responsibility or capability. Anytime we feel like we are on a hamster wheel of constant fire-fighting, we are likely caught in reactive rescuing mode. How do we get beyond this? By looking at what is causing these problems – not necessarily the original cause – but something upstream that can be addressed.
Upstream thinking can create enduring solutions to big issues – not just short-term fixes. As Heath states, “researchers have found that when people experience scarcity – of money, time, or mental bandwidth, the harm is not that the big problems crowd out the little ones. The harm is that the little ones crowd out the big ones.” It’s something to think about – that the big important problems may never get addressed when we are too busy swatting at flies.