Book:  Upstream

Author:  Dan Heath

Purchase:  PrinteBookAudiobook

Citation:  Heath, D. (2020). Upstream : the quest to solve problems before they happen. New York: Avid Reader Press.

Three Big Takeaways:

  • There's one reason we tend to favor reaction (as opposed to prevention): Because it's more tangible. Downstream work is easier to see. Easier to measure. There's a maddening ambiguity about upstream (or preventative) efforts. While we have a wide spectrum of available options to address the world's problems, we've mostly confined ourselves to one response: react. (pg. 6)

  • What frustrates a lot of people about preventative work is that you really don't know if it's working, whereas with reactionary work you can see the data. You must find short-term measures that can inform your preventative work. While getting short term (or lead measures) is frustratingly complex, it's critical to your work. There is nothing worse than not having short term measures tracking your progress. (pg. 160)

  • The world is full of groups who engage in lofty discussions, but never create meaningful change. Change won't come without action. However, it can take a while to bear fruit. You must continue to chip away to win preventative victories. An inch at a time, and then a yard, and then a mile, and eventually you find yourself at the finish line: systems change. Be impatient for action and patient for outcomes. (pg. 234)

Other Key Ideas:

  • Across most developed countries, for every $1 they spend to respond to issues, they spend $2 - $3 to make preventative measures. However, in the United States for every $1 we spend on reaction, we only spend $1 on preventative measures. (pg. 11)

  • In the Chicago Public Schools they found that 9th grade is the key to success for students. If 9th grade students complete five credits and do not fail more than one semester of a core course they are 3.5 times more likely to graduate. Another reason why 9th grade was so important was because it was a transition year as the students went from elementary school to high school. Staff members found when they give extra support to 9th grade students this works well - so they started collaborative meetings between the teachers in the "house." The teachers changed from "I put the work out there and I assign the grades" to "my job is to make sure all students are succeeding in my class." As a teacher, if you accept that your job is to support students, not appraise them, it changes everything. (pg. 25)

  • To solve systemic issues, staff need a guaranteed block of time to think about systems-level issues. A space needs to be created to cultivate solutions to preventative issues. This works in all organizations - from Google to school districts. (pg. 63)

  • To address systemic issues, you need to surround the problem with the right people, give them early notice of the problem, and align their efforts toward preventing specific instances of that problem. Once you have surrounded the issue, you need to find data points that will allow you to know if the plan is working. You need to have data for the purpose of learning (lead measures) as opposed to data for the purpose of inspection (lag measures). (pg. 88)

  • One of the most baffling and destructive ideas about preventative efforts is that they must save us money. However, here in America, we always end up paying the money eventually. For example, when an individual needs a life-saving surgery they get the surgery. However, when we start talking about preventing children from going hungry, suddenly the work has to pay for itself. Let's not sabotage preventative efforts by subjecting them to a test we never impose on reactionary interventions. (pg. 128)

  • In Pennsylvania there is a tip line in which students can submit anonymous issues of violence at school. It gives students an easy way to report threats without some of the stigma of being a "snitch." The results were very positive. While some may complain that there were too many false reports, and it is hard to truly know how many threats of violence were stopped, we'd rather err on the side of too many false positives. The cost of missing those warning signals is simply too high. (pg. 149)

  • It is hard to get organizations to spend money on preventative measures. Sure, they have no issues spending millions of dollars when they have to react to a significant issue or problem. However, it's hard to convince people to want to spend money when a hardship hasn't forced their hand. (pg. 220)

  • The people who are in the field doing the hard work should receive timely, useful data that allows them to learn and adapt. Consider using a scoreboard to keep a continuous flow of data. This scoreboard will provide a way to judge in real time whether you're succeeding or failing. Ask yourself this question: How can we make progress this week. (pg. 238)

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