• Lynda Wallace-Hulecki, Ed.D.

Literature of Leadership - Upstream

UPSTREAM. The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen. Dan Heath. (2020, Kindle Edition).

Dan Heath is the coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers including Made to Stick, Switch, Decisive, and The Power of Moments. In his books, Heath compels readers to think about problem-solving in new ways. In this latest book, he advances the concept of “upstream thinking”, which aims to proactively prevent problems before they happen; or alternatively, to systematically reduce the harm those problems cause.

Heath asserts that all too often in addressing complex problems, leaders focus on reacting to the symptoms, rather than on fixing the problem. In Upstream, he compels readers to shift more energy to problem prevention using systems thinking. He states: “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”.

For this to occur, leaders first must overcome barriers to upstream thinking including: an inability to see the problem, lack of ownership of the problem, and short-term “tunnel” thinking. For example, consider the complex issue of student attrition rates in colleges and universities. Is student attrition considered to be an inevitable institutional condition, or one that can be proactively reduced in impact? Since student attrition can occur at all stages of the student experience, who owns the problem? Is there the collective will to engage in systemic problem-solving, or does a reactive mentality prevail?

Throughout the three sections of this book, Heath adeptly uses the art of storytelling to advance a compelling case for upstream thinking within the realities of its inherent complexities. Section 1 addresses the three barriers to upstream thinking (i.e., problem blindness, lack of ownership, and tunneling). Section 2 outlines seven fundamental questions for upstream leaders to consider. In the final section, “far upstream” thinking is discussed for facing problems that are unpreventable (e.g., hurricanes) or uncommon (e.g., Y2K).

While Heath indicates that this book is not intended to be a “how-to guide”, access to online resources is offered to assist those interested in taking the first few steps upstream.

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