Upstream: A book review by Bob Morris

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen
Dan Heath
Avid Reader Press/An imprint of Simon & Schuster (March 2020)

Never more true than it is today: “A stitch in time….”

I have read and reviewed four bestsellers co-authored by Dan and Chip Heath: Made to Stick, Switch, How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, and How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. However different these four books may be in most respects, all of them were written to help those who read them to accelerate their personal growth and professional development.

What we have in Upstream is a brilliant explanation by Dan Heath of how to “solve problems before they happen.” Yes, it is much better to prevent them than to solve them. In fact, Dan points out, “I’m defining upstream efforts as those intended to prevent problems, before they happen or, alternately, to systematically reduce the harm caused by those problems.” For example, “Swim lessons are further upstream than life preservers.”

Many (most?) people focus on symptoms rather than on root causes when struggling to solve or prevent a problem. Another common mistake is failing to recognize a cause-and-effect relationship. Wet highways do not cause rain but they can cause accidents if no precautions are taken. For example, replace bald tires, double or triple normal distances between vehicles, and slow down to a reasonable speed.

In U.S. companies, the current average of actively and positively engaged workers is about 30%. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively engaged in undermining the success of their company. What to do? Supervisors must develop and some cutting-edge thinking. They would be well-advised to keep in mind that results of all the major research studies that asked employees what was of greatest importance to them, “feeling appreciated was ranked or near the top.” Heath suggests several “upstream” tactics.

However, he points out, “Upstream thinking is not just for organizations, it’s for individuals. Where there’s a recurring problem in your life, go upstream. And don’t let the problem’s longevity deter you from acting. As the old proverb goes, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Dan Heath’s coverage:

o Upstream actions (Pages 3-10 and 229-244)
o Disasters and disaster preparedness (9-10, 213-214, and 222-223)
o Health and health care (10-14, 127-133, 189-192, and 201-204)
o Upstream leadership/downstream problems (21-38, 32-33, 39-55, 58-60, 135-151, 153-169, 75-96, 97-114, 115-133, 135-151, and 189-204)
o Ray Anderson (39-40 and 48-54)

o Environmental issues (39-40, 4s8-52, 65-70, and 111-112)
o Reykjavik, Iceland (75-81)
o Violence prevention (82-89, 116-117, and 146-151)
o Jennifer Jaeger (9!-96)
o Anthony Iton (97-102)

o Social sector opportunities (105-106, 237-239, and 249-250)
o Building Healthy Communities (110-113)
o Becoming a Man (117-123)
o Carmela Rochetti (128-133)
o Sandy Hook Elementary School (146-151)

o Ghost victories (153-169)
o Daniel Kahneman (158-159)
o Feedback (179-185)
o Costs and funding of prevention (189-204)
o “Chicken Little” problems (207-208)

Please allow me a personal digression with regard to why I think this book is so important. After I read and re-read it, I began to work on several drafts of this brief commentary and then I stopped. Why? I began to think of the problems I have had in my personal life and in my professional life. If I had a magic wand, which do I now regret most? I listed four. What could I have done to prevent each? How could I limit the damage of those I could not prevent? Live and learn…and apply what has been learned.

Thanks to Dan Heath, I feel much better prepared to work on the causes and effects of problems and, hopefully, in process I will learn something of value about myself that I did not know before. I also feel better prepared to apply upstream thinking if and when other problems either occur unexpectedly or seem imminent.

I presume to add one suggestion. Read Upstream in combination with one or both of two others: Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture and Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life? Together, they can help to accelerate your personal growth and professional development.

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