Mon, 4 May 2020
Leaders especially are constantly running around trying to "put out fires." But, what if there was a way to stop the fires from happening to begin with? That is the premise of Dan Heath's new book: Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. Dan is the best-selling author of six books five of which he wrote with his brother Chip Heath (who I had on my podcast a little while ago). These books include classics such as: Made to Stick, Switch, and The Power of Moments.
How do we stop chasing fires and start preventing them? It's all about Upstream thinking. You can listen to the full in-depth conversation with Dan below
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The Upstream Parable
Back in 2009 Dan heard a parable that is well known in public health and it really resonated with him. It is what inspired him to write the book. He tells it like this, “You and a friend are having a picnic on the bank of a river. And you've just laid down your picnic blankets, you're about to have your meal when you hear a shout from the direction of the river. You look back and there's a child thrashing around in the water, apparently drowning. So you both dive in, you fish the child out, you bring them to shore. Just as you're starting to calm down you hear another shout. You look back, there's a second child splashing around again, apparently drowning and so back in you go. You fish them out, then there are two more children who come along right behind and so begins this kind of revolving door of rescue, where you're in and out, and fishing kids out and it's exhausting work. And right about that time, you notice your friend is swimming to the shore, steps out, starts to walk away as though to leave you alone, and you cry out, "Hey, where are you going? I need your help. All these kids are drowning" and your friend says, "I'm going upstream to figure out who's throwing all these kids in the river."
And that is the problem with most organizations. We are too focused on our own work and trying to quickly solve any issues that come up in order to just keep moving forward - we reward busy work. The result is an endless cycle of putting out fires as they come, when instead we should be able to recognize recurrent problems so we can get to the root cause. If we can find out how to fix the systems that cause the problems in the first place, we would save so much time and energy.
How to move from downstream thinking to upstream thinking
Inside of most companies employees are divided into separate functions--marketing stays in the marketing department, sales in sales, HR in HR and so on. This setup is not conducive for upstream thinking as it keeps everyone secluded and not working together to address problems. As Dan told me:
"Focus in organizations is both an enemy and an ally. It's an ally in the sense that when we get people focused on particular measures or a particular area of responsibility, it makes them more efficient. But, focus is also an enemy in the sense that it blinds you to things that are just slightly outside of your box."
Dan gives a great real life example from the travel website, Expedia. One employee working in the customer experience group was looking through some data from their call center and he found that for every 100 people who booked a flight through their site, 58 of them were calling for help. This employee saw something wrong with that picture, since the company’s whole business model is self service travel planning. Call center agents are focused on things like reducing call time and the number of issues, they don't ever ask "hey, how can I keep Jaco from calling to begin with?"
What this employee discovered was the number one reason people were calling was to get a copy of their itinerary, which should be an easy task. So this employee and his boss went to the CEO with the data and convinced the CEO to create a task force to address the issue. The task force met together and found multiple ways to address this problem and they saved the company 100 million dollars.
This is such a great story, because this employee could have easily ignored the data, no one was complaining. Everyone answering phones in the call center was just taking these calls and quickly assisting people over and over again. But had they ignored it they would have wasted countless hours and resources.
Here's another example from Linkedin who was actually a research sponsor for new book, The Future Leader. Dan Shapero is the Chief Business Officer at Linkedin and as many of you know, Linkedin has a recruiting tool you can subscribe to. It's an annual subscription and the general process was that around month 11, Dan and his team would see which accounts haven't been that active and then they would try to swoop in and try to get these people to renew for the following year. But then Dan started to wonder if there was a way to get earlier warning of who would churn. It turns out that Linkedin has tons of data but they never really used it. They could actually get a good sense of who is going to churn by around week 4! So instead of investing a ton of resources towards the end of the process, they decided to invest more in the on-boarding of new subscribers. This change resulted in tens of millions of dollars in profit. This all happened because of the shift from Downstream thinking (how do we get as many people to renew) to Upstream thinking (how do we keep people from NOT wanting to renew in the first place?).
Three main barriers to upstream thinking
In the book Dan lays out three main barriers to upstream thinking. They are:
It is so easy to stay in our rut. As Dan shares, “our schedules are so overloaded that we're so locked in, head down, that we forget that there's even another mode to be in. And yet, if we want our work to improve, it has to be at that level, it has to be at the level of stamping out problems rather than just reacting to them again and again.”
We adapt to irritants, when we don’t have to
Humans are extremely adaptable creatures, we can block out what we don’t want to pay attention to, but that’s not always a good thing. One example Dan gave was this, “I came across this woman who told me she had just been moved physically within her office so she had just taken over a new desk, and her desk was right by a stairwell door. And they're often reinforced so they're heavy doors, and this thing just creaked like crazy and it drove her nuts, and of course a lot of the people around had kind of adapted to it. And a couple of days of this thing just distracting her, she finally just brought in a can of WD-40 from home and generously lubed up the hinges on the door. All the sudden it was quiet, just perfectly quiet and she said her office mates treated her like she had come down from on high. They were just in awe that she had solved this problem. And I think that's a great example of where our capacity to adapt as human beings is actually maybe a little bit too powerful. That we adapt to things in our lives and in our work, and even in our country that we needn't have adapted to that we could have solved with just a little bit of forethought.”
To hear more real-life examples of upstream thinking and get more of Dan's insights listen to the full interview by clicking the play button.