Solving the Better Problem

Organizational Transformation

To solve most of our big problems before they happen would seem to require some form of time travel.  And it would produce a wonderful world. Chip Heath of Heath Brothers fame has challenged us to do more than dream about that world in his latest book, Upstream. Similar to his previous works on communication, change and decision making, this book provides more a pathway to follow than an exact formula. Most of Heath’s examples come from the social sector trying to solve the big problems of our day like healthcare, climate change, poverty and education. These are the problems that seem to be getting bigger despite gathering more of our attention and resources.


Complex problems by nature are hard to solve but Heath points out a number of barriers that prevent us from focusing our attention on their causes before problems grow beyond our ability to find easy solutions. Many of our systems and approaches more highly reward relieving the pain caused by problems rather than preventing them. Think healthcare.  Politicians often point out that the US spends more on healthcare than any other country. Heath points out that the US actually spends a similar amount as some other countries with one significant difference. The US spends a much higher percentage on cures while other countries invest more in prevention. The short term perspective of cure drowns out the harder to define benefits of stopping a problem that never occurs.


Beyond the reward system of solving the immediate problem, Heath points out three common barriers. It starts with an inability to see the problem or more likely our willingness to accept the problem as inevitable.  However, even when problems are recognized it doesn’t lead to action. Two common responses that create barriers are “it is not my problem to fix” and even if it is my problem, “I don’t have time to address it now.”  


Of course, even deciding to take on the challenges of solving a big problem leads us to encounter a whole new set of issues.  Heath provides seven key questions* to keep us focused on what matters most. Most relate to change management and problem solving principles like mobilize the right people, understand the system and unanticipated consequences, and measure results and get feedback.


An underlying principle to overcoming the barriers and implementing an upstream approach is to have clarity about what you are trying to accomplish. It is easy to gravitate towards the short term solution and not focus on the right problem if you fail to stay connected to your real purpose. Throughout the book, Heath uses examples of well-intentioned people who get caught up in meeting the urgent need and were not challenged to think about their role differently. 


In development work, the end goal is sometimes captured in a statement like, “I am trying to work myself out of a job.” The hope is that the people I am trying to help will move beyond the need for me to provide this service. For those fulfilling a front line role to provide relief their energy is taken up with short term concerns but as an organization everyone should always have the much broader purpose of how do we ultimately alleviate this condition.


With the proper framing of purpose and strategic direction, everyone in an organization is much more likely to identify where they need to invest their time and energy. Equally important, it creates a strategic orientation to decision making. Intermediate steps to move from short term solutions to long term systemic impact are more readily identified.  People can be challenged to keep moving upstream even in the midst of solving downstream problems.  The key is leaders who have made a commitment to communicate the possibility of a truly better world and have created the strategic framework for their teams to pursue new ways to think and experiment in their current environments.


*Seven Questions for Upstream Leaders

How will you unite the right people?

How will you change the system?

Where can you find a point of leverage?

How will you get early warning of the problem?

How will you know you’re succeeding?

How will you avoid doing harm?

Who will pay for what does not happen?