Imagine two people standing on the bank of a river. As they’re calmly chatting away a small child floats past kicking and screaming for help. Immediately one of the people jumps into the river to rescue the child. As they are bringing them to shore, another child floats downstream kicking and screaming for help. Of course, the other person jumps in to rescue the second child. The first child is now safe on the shore when a third child comes floating down the river in need of rescuing! It's chaotic.
As soon as one child is rescued there is another floating downstream. Eventually one of the people climbs up the bank and starts to walk upstream. The person in the water still rescuing children frantically yells “Where are you going?”
“I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”
This is a public health parable and the opening story of Upstream, a book by Dan Heath about how to solve problems before they happen.
As far as I’m concerned my life is a constant run of problems that need to be solved. From the moment I wake up (which is way too early because of the kids, which is a problem in itself), deciding what we’ll have for breakfast, figuring out which bride will work best for homeschooling today followed by what to eat for lunch. Then it's off to work for a couple of hours to hopefully get paid for solving other people’s problems.
Everybody and every business has got a shopping list of problems they’d like to solve. The main problem is it can be hard to solve a problem when you're in the middle of it trying to fix it.
There are three main barriers that can prevent us from discovering or taking action the problems we need to solve.
Problem blindness is when you can’t see the problem or it seems inevitable.
Lack of ownership is a huge barrier on a societal level - it's not my problem to solve.
And my personal favourite tunneling which is when you just can’t deal with that right now. I think most of the problems I face in life sit in the tunneling phase for a while before I take action.
Like all of the Heath Brother books it is full of interesting and inspiring stories. Here are a few that stood out.
In Chicago in 1996 only 52% of students in the public school system graduated their final year of college. Teachers, students and the community as a whole had come to believe that this was just how it was. Luckily there was a study done by the Chicago Consortium on School Research in 2005 that could predict, with 80% accuracy, which freshmen would graduate and which would drop out. They discovered two factors: (1) Student completion of a five full-year course credit and (2) not failing more than one semester of a core subject (english or maths for example.) These factors combined became known as Freshman On Track. FOT's were 3.5 times more likely to graduate than those who weren’t.
While this information didn’t solve the graduation rates it highlighted a time in a student life that could affect their outcome. Instead of teacher meetings in their individual departments they created Freshman Success Teams that meet across disciples and focused on individuals. They worked with at-risk students and helped them to sustain a full course load and got them extra help on the core subjects. By 2018 the graduation rate had jumped to 78%.
Another interesting idea was about solving problems before they happen, so then nothing happens?!? There is a story about John Koskinen, who in 1998 accepted President Clinton’s invitation to be the Y2K czar. Koskinen’s job was to make sure that everything was going to go smoothly when the world's clocks ticked over from 1999 to 2000. He organized 25 working groups that spanned all industries and assessed what may or may not happen. He even got a law passed that helped with the sharing of information between industries.
While this was mainly a technical issue it was also a psychological one. Imagine if rumours spread and everyone started to believe that the ATM’s would stop working (which I vaguely remember being mentioned in NZ, but I was a student at the time and didn’t have any money anyway). If everyone tried to withdraw their money at once from the banks it would be pandemonium.
Long story short, nothing major happened when the clocks ticked over. The argument then becomes was it because we were prepared that nothing happened or was nothing going to happen regardless of how prepared we were?
Sitting aside some time to solve problems in your life is super important - it's like working on your business rather than just in it. Here is a quick example of how I’ve taken some action after being inspired by this book.
At TinyOffice (if you're new, I’m also one half of a prefab building company with my husband Matt, selling beautiful backyard studios so people can work from home in peace!) We had lots of people ringing us about the price of the TinyOffice we have pictured on the website. People didn’t necessarily want one, they just wanted a price so we put the price on the website. Boom. People now know straight away, it gives them an indication of price range and has stopped people ringing up if their budget is $1000.
If you have some spare time on your hands this weekend why not set some of it aside to think about some of the things you do (normally repeatedly) that you might not need to do if you changed something further upstream. Me, I’m going to replace the outside porch light bulb. Every second night I hang out the washing in the goddamn dark and swear and get cross that Matt hasn’t replaced the bloody lightbulb! I’ll just do it myself, no more fuming in the dark!! Problem solved.