In a webinar, author Dan Heath shared insights he learned from writing his book Upstream. The premise of the book is based on a fable about the age-old dilemma of whether we keep pulling the children out of the river or whether instead we head upstream to see why they are falling in the river in the first place.

One of Heath’s key points is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, even though that is the default reaction for many. Instead, there is a spectrum of actions that one could take between downstream and upstream and the most realistic action is to pay attention there.

He shared the example of the YWCA, a real-life “kids drowning” scenario. Every year, children do drown in their pools, but the Y has taken several steps to reduce that number. In addition to having the lifeguard on duty to literally jump in and pull the child out of the pool, their facilities are stocked with equipment such as life preservers to aid in the rescue process. To prevent drowning in the first place, young children are given color-coded wristbands based on their swimming ability so the lifeguards know to keep careful watch and intervene earlier for those with red bands. And even further on the prevention spectrum, the Y offers swim lessons to reduce the chance of non-swimmers faltering in the pool.

If you think about a problem your organization experiences, consider whether you’re addressing just the “downstream” response or whether you are dedicating resources further “upstream.” While you may not be able to tend to the root cause right away, can you make efforts to intervene further up the spectrum in that direction? “Upstream work is your only hope for making next month better,” Heath said. “That’s why the hard work is worth it.”

Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath,

Unofficial book summary here


About the Author leadership dots by dr. beth triplett

I'm the chief connector at leadership dots where I serve as "the string" for individuals and organizations. Like stringing pearls together to make a necklace, "being the string" is an intentional way of thinking and behaving – making linkages between things that otherwise appear random or unconnected – whether that be supervising a staff, completing a dissertation or advancing a project in the workplace. I share daily leadership dots on my blog to provide examples of “the string” in action. I use the string philosophy through coaching, consulting and teaching to help others build capacity in themselves and their organizations. I craft analogies and metaphors that help people comprehend complex topics and understand their role in the system. My favorite work involves helping those new to supervision or newly promoted supervisors build confidence and learn the skills necessary to effectively lead their team.

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