A man and his friend are sitting by the bank of a river. Suddenly they see a child being carried down by the current, obviously drowning, crying for help. They dive in, rescue the child. Barely have they done that than another drowning child appears. They rescue that one too. Then another. The man’s friend in the meantime has got out of the water and is walking away. “I can’t rescue these kids by myself,” he says. “Where are you going?" the man yells. “I’m going upstream, to deal with the man who is throwing the kids into the water,” replies his friend.

This parable is the inspiration for Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. If you have read their bestselling books—Made to Stick, The Power of Moments, Switch, and Decisive—you are probably already fans. If you haven’t read them, Upstream is a good book to start. Chip Heath teaches business strategy at Stanford Business School and Dan Heath is Senior Fellow at Duke University as well as a former case writer for Harvard Business School.

Their new book is extraordinarily timely with its emphasis on building systems. Every system is designed to get the results it gets, say the authors. To change the results, a leader must go upstream to detect problems early on.

It is not easy to look upstream. “Problem blindness”, for instance, might inure you to system failures. Like radiologists who can miss a gorilla on their x-ray because they have been programmed to examine the scans only for cancerous nodules, many leaders can’t see systemic problems.

The other problem is that as a society, we don't give importance to people behind the scenes. We glorify the firefighters who rescue people from a burning building, but we don’t recognize the efforts of multiple departments working quietly in the background that ensure a fire never happens. Thus we skew our systems towards reaction rather than prevention.

There is also fragmentation in most organizations, and thus nobody is responsible for cracks and flaws in the system as a whole.  The story of the travel company Expedia illustrates this lack of ownership. In 2012, their emergency call center received a staggering 20 million calls a year. A later study revealed many of these calls need not ever have been made if the company had made a few tweaks in the booking system. But this didn’t happen because although Expedia had a marketing department, a systems department, and a customer service department, it did not have a department whose job it was to reduce the number of calls at the emergency helpline.

The world today is also prone to ‘tunneling’ with people juggling many problems . The scarcity of money, time, or mental bandwidth means that people don’t have time for upstream thinking and become reactive instead.

As a leader, you need to go beyond these barriers to look at the system in its entirety, say the authors. And thereby go upstream to change it. The many stories in the book demonstrate the success of this approach. The stories are mostly US-centric. Reducing domestic violence in Boston, increasing life expectancy in Baltimore, and curbing gun violence.

But the lessons about the importance of going upstream is universal. The biggest takeaway is the seven questions leaders must ask themselves when they embark on an upstream change are:

  1. How will you unite the right people, give them roles and a sense of purpose?
  2. How will you change the system? 
  3. Where can you find a point of leverage ?
  4. How will you get an early warning of the problem ? 
  5. How will you know whether you are succeeding ?
  6. How will you avoid doing harm? 
  7. Who will pay for prevention, for what does not happen?

Each question is debated in a different chapter and demonstrated through real-life cases. All of which makes Upstream a perfect book for today’s leadership.

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

By Chip and Dan Heath

Simon & Schuster

Pages: 320 pages

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Sonya Dutta Choudhury writes for publications such as Mint and The Hindustan Times. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta, she is also the author of Career Rules: How to Choose Right & Get the Life You Want. 

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