Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath – Here are my 7 lessons and takeaways

Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred. Upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.
That’s one of the main reasons I wrote this book. Because, while we have a wide spectrum of available options to address the world’s problems, we’ve mostly confined ourselves to one tiny stretch of the landscape: the zone of response. React, react, react.
My goal in this book is to convince you that we should shift more of our energies upstream: personally, organizationally, nationally, and globally.
Dan Heath, from his book Upstream

When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn? 
From Where Have all the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger


Upstream{Note:  For the April First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of Upstream : The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath.  I presented this over Zoom.  Since this remote format was new to me, I only presented one synopsis at our April gathering.  For May, I will resume my practice of two synopses; for our on-line meeting}.

Upstream was a timely book, to put it mildly.  We were meeting on Zoom because we are all sheltering in place.  We are sheltering in place because of a rather large problem we are facing; we are all facing.  And this book is all about solving problems before they happen.  If only…

We know by now that this coronavirus pandemic was a problem that many experts saw coming.  In the years of the First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented a synopsis of Factfulness by Hans Rosling.  He wrote that a global pandemic was one of six great dangers facing our planet.  And I presented a synopsis of Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which was a book-length warning that people, and organizations, (and, governments and countries) should become antifragile (the opposite of fragile) for when such strength and resilience is needed.

So, in other words, there will be problems that we do not solve before they arrive.  I don’t know that we have learned our lessons about this.  But we have learned that the problem of waiting until the problem arrives is real.  And, by then, by the time a problem arrives with all its force, it really is too late.  …If only we had put in place strategies and solutions before the pandemic had arrived.

This is a book about thinking about how to do just that.

Now, to the book itself…

I ask about each book I present, What is the point?  Here is the point for this book: It is better to stop a problem from happening before it happens than to fix it after it has happened.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book

#1 – This book tells many stories of “upstreaming” success; and a few failures that could have really been helped by serious upstream thought and work.
#2 – This book helps explain our blindness, which keeps us from even attempting upstreaming efforts.
#3 – This book will inspire you to get out of your narrow tunnel, recruit (diverse) allies, and tackle some big upstream challenges.

Whenever I present my synopses, I always include key highlights from the book (excerpts directly from the book).  Here are a few of the especially good ones from Upstream; the best of my highlighted passages 

When you spend years responding to problems, you can sometimes overlook the fact that you could be preventing them.
The US health care system is designed almost exclusively for reaction. It functions like a giant Undo button.
But it’s hard to find someone in the system whose job it is to address the question How do we make you healthier? (As distinct from How can we respond to the problems that make you unhealthy?)
Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.
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.
Leaders first had to awaken from problem blindness. …You can’t solve a problem that you can’t see, or one that you perceive as a regrettable but inevitable condition of life.
The seed of improvement is dissatisfaction.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that from 1975 to 2016, 11,274 children under the age of four had their lives saved by car seats.
Researchers have found that when people experience scarcity—of money or 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.
We’ve got to create an urgent demand to fix a problem that may not happen for a while. We’ve got to make the upstream feel downstream, in other words.
Maybe you’re right that nothing is going to happen, but you must agree that if this does happen, it’s going to be a catastrophe, so let’s take out an insurance policy.
The lesson of the high-risk team’s success seems to be: Surround the problem with the right people; give them early notice of that problem; and align their efforts toward preventing specific instances of that problem.
The thing to do, when you don’t know, is not to bluff and not to freeze, but to learn. The way you learn is by experiment—or, as Buckminster Fuller put it, “by trial and error, error, error.”
Here is where I am going to test your patience by asking you to consider how two dissonant ideas might both be true: First, that the disaster response for the people stranded in New Orleans was unspeakably bad, and second, that many thousands of lives were saved because of the planning that was sparked by Hurricane Pam. In short: Hurricane Katrina’s effects were terrible, and they could have been much worse.
We are drawn to the glory of the rescue and the response.
Our heroes should also include a teacher who skips lunch to help a freshman with math, in hopes that she’ll get back on track to graduate.
These should be our heroes, too: The people who are unsatisfied with normal. People who clamor for better.

In this book, Mr. Heath tells many stories, from the fierce battle over mandating infant car seats, to the missed pre-Katrina opportunities — even though, because of what was done before Katrina, before the pre-hurricane preparations were derailed midway through the planned exercises, many lives were most definitely saved.

  • So, what is “Upstream?”
  • In this book, I’m defining upstream efforts as those intended to prevent problems before they happen or, alternatively, to systematically reduce the harm caused by those problems. — I prefer the word upstream to preventive or proactive because I like the way the stream metaphor prods us to expand our thinking about solutions.
  • Here are the problems
  • we are so very busy fixing the problems in front of us; we’re too busy to do the upstream work
  • we can measure the “fixes” far more easily that we can measure the upstream work; the “preventions” of problems – How do you prove what did not happen?”
  • we are better at work in front of us than designing all-encompassing systems — A telltale sign of upstream work is that it involves systems thinking.
  • Here is the “process” that would be good and wise to follow:
  • see the problem
  • take ownership – “YOU” have to find a way to solve this! Yes; You!
  • find allies – a community – lots of allies… — And with that recognition — that this phenomenon is a problem and we see it the same way — comes strength. Something remarkable often happens next: People voluntarily hold themselves responsible for fixing problems they did not create. The upstream advocate concludes: I was not the one who created this problem. But I will be the one to fix it.

One strong suggestion:  get “proximate — Bryan Stevenson, a law professor at NYU, author, and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, calls this the “power of proximity.” “I believe that to make a difference in creating a healthier community, a healthier society, a healthier nation, and thus a healthier economy, we’ve got to find ways to get proximate to the poor and the vulnerable,” — “I absolutely believe that when we isolate ourselves—when we allow ourselves to be shielded and disconnected from those who are vulnerable and disfavored, we sustain and contribute to these problems. I am persuaded that in proximity there is something we can learn about how we change the world.…”

  • And, remember this: every win was a battle — car seats; Ozone Hole.

Here are my seven lessons and takeaways:

#1 – There will be more problems to face; big problems.
#2 – Fixing what is already upon us overwhelms any other thoughts about what to work on.
#3 – But…if we could stop the bad from happening, we could save money, and lives. It really is a challenge to keep the bad from happening before it happens.
#4 – In order to do the upstream work, we have to invest time, people, money, “groups,” to work on it together.
#5 – It will take a group, a community, a diverse community, working together, to be successful in upstream work.
#6 – Go out of your way to put human names and faces on every upstream project.
#7 – And, always be on the lookout for the next upstream challenge.

Here is what I think.  It’s not that this book will give you a do-this then do-that blueprint to prepare us for the next pandemic.  But it will give us a clear, loud signal that it is wise to try to try to solve problems before they happen.  And it can be so very devastating to wait until the problem is upon us.  By then, it really is too late.

Take a look around; I think you will see what I mean.


My synopsis of this book, with my comprehensive multipage synopsis handout and the audio recording of my presentation, will be available soon from the buy synopses tab on this site.  Click here to see our newest additions.

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