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    7 Courageous Upstream Tactics to Conquer Systemic Downstream Problems

    Downstream thinking encourages problems. Upstream thinking solves problems. Use these 7 tactics.

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      Vaughan Broderick

      Vaughan Broderick

      Have you ever been stuck in an organisation with a seemingly never-ending supply of urgent problems?

      Everyone is hands-on, working quickly to remedy the situation.

      Then, when disaster is averted, you realise the same problem you just helped fix.

      Looks very similar to the one before and the one before that.

      The danger with solving problems this way is that it costs significant time, money and effort again and again.

      Resulting in poorer outcomes for people. This is ‘downstream thinking’.

      The pro-active alternative is to prevent problems from occurring in the first place. This is ‘upstream thinking’.

      Unfortunately, most people operate in the moment and don’t take the time to work more upstream.

      Downstream thinking encourages problems. Upstream thinking solves problems.

      Read time: 5 minutes (or less) 👇

      This weeks newsletter is inspired by and attributed to the book, Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen, by Dan Heath.

      And my own experiences designing services in business and the public sector.

      Today, you’ll takeaway:

      • 3 common themes of downstream thinking.
      • 3 mindset barriers to upstream thinking.
      • 7 tactics to move upstream.

      Let’s get going!

      Common Causes of Downstream Thinking

      Downstream Thinking

      Several reasons cause people to focus downstream rather than upstream.

      3 common themes are:

      • It’s more tangible, so people can begin to ‘solve’ the problem immediately.
      • There is an immediate sense of accomplishment from ‘fixing’ the problem.
      • Most people are uncomfortable working in ambiguous upstream situations.

      3 Mindset Barriers to Upstream Thinking

      The 3 mindset barriers to upstream thinking are:

      • Problem blindness – ‘I don’t see the problem’.
      • Lack of Ownership – ‘It’s not my problem to fix’.
      • Tunnelling – ‘I’m too busy’.

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      Problem Blindness

      Problem blindness is when people have resigned to the point that the problem ‘is what it is’ and will always be that way.

      An example might be that there will always be homeless people, and it’s the homeless person’s issue.

      Because busy people are so task-focused, they miss the signals of things occurring around them, reducing their curiosity.

      Lack of Ownership

      Often in tandem with ‘problem blindness’ is ‘lack of ownership’.

      Many people feel they don’t have the authority or ‘permission’ to take ownership of a problem.

      As this McKinsey paper points out, organisational culture plays a big part in problem-solving.

      In a high-performing culture, the mindset isn’t whether someone ‘should or shouldn’t fix a problem’.

      Instead, ‘who is in the best position to fix the problem?’

      Empowered and proactive people choose to fix a worthwhile problem not because they are expected to but because they can.


      Tunnelling (tunnel vision) is a symptom of dealing with many minor issues and not having enough mental energy to deal with significant issues.

      Complex systems make it difficult for people to move upstream because they are often constrained and time-poor, dealing with urgent matters over important long-term ones.

      The combination of mindsets can result in a repetitive and reinforcing ‘save the day’ complex.

      7 Tactics When Moving Upstream

      Upstream Tactics

      There are 7 tactics to focus on as you navigate more upstream.

      1) Collaborate With The Right People

      Collaborate with a team of motivated and goal-aligned people.

      At least one member should influence one of the inter-connected domains the issue sits across.

      You’d be surprised how much impact a small but highly driven team can change downstream effects if they are put together well.

      2) Shape the Water

      When considering system change, fighting against a torrent of oncoming water is difficult.

      Effective upstream change will likely combine several smaller long-term efforts that ‘shape the water’ to produce the desired outcome.

      3) Find Leverage

      Every complex problem will have tensions that either increase or decrease the problem.

      This is where leverage sits.

      Spending time in the ‘problem space’ is essential to try and locate a tension point that could be leveraged for maximum impact.

      The discovering and understanding phases of design thinking are beneficial for finding leverage.

      4) Design Early Warning Systems

      Detecting the problem early and with sufficient response time is critical.

      Often there will be patterns that indicate the potential for a problem.

      These patterns can shape how a solution might be designed.

      For example, early warning sirens of a potential Tsunami after an earthquake.

      5) Carefully Plan How You Measure Success

      Knowing if you’re succeeding may not be easy to work out.

      There are common issues that may indicate success when success isn’t occurring:

      1. The improvement may be caused by something else.
      2. The measure may have shown improvement. But, the goal didn’t improve.
      3. People become focused more on the short-term measure than the goal.

      6) Avoid Unintended Consequences

      Unintended consequences will sometimes occur.

      It’s essential to zoom out and look holistically as to what might else be affected by the actions you take.

      Short feedback loops will help to catch any unintended consequences early and provide an opportunity for continuous improvement.

      Getting started with a ‘good enough’ solution combined with feedback loops will be better than trying to perfect a solution.

      7) Align Funding and Incentives

      In complex systems, the leverage point may not receive the direct funding to make the change.

      Aligning the incentives is critical to motivating different stakeholders to participate and take ownership of the problem.

      An example might be, sharing the cost savings from reduced hospital procedures with general practitioners to manage people’s health outside of hospital.

      Enabling more time with each patient rather than being compelled to see a certain number of patients daily.

      The Short of It

      • Most people gravitate towards downstream problems.
      • Mindsets barriers are: problem blindness – ‘I don’t see the problem’, lack of ownership – ‘It’s not my problem to fix’, tunnelling – ‘I’m too busy’.
      • Being reactive won’t win. Start using the 7 tactics today to prevent problems.

      If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with 1 other person.

      That’s all.

      Let’s achieve together.

      🥇 LinkedIn Tip of the Week 🥇

      🔥 Upstream Quote 🔥

      “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” – Dr. W. Edwards Deming

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