Upstream Thinking

Dan Heath, who has written several fine books with his brother Chip (Made to Stick, Decisive, Switch, and The Power of Moments), recently wrote a book on his own that is every bit as good and important: Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

Here’s an excerpt from the description that appears on the inside flap of the book’s dust cover:

So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customers complaints. But many crimes, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

Upstream probes the psychological forces that push us downstream…Dan Heath introduces us to the thinkers who have overcome these obstacles and scored massive victories by switching to an upstream mind-set…

Upstream delivers practical solutions for preventing problems rather than reacting to them. How many problems in our lives and in society are we tolerating simply because we’ve forgotten that we can fix them?

Essentially, Upstream explains and promotes the importance of systems thinking (a.k.a. systems science). Systems thinking involves synthesis, seeing the whole and how its many parts interact to form a system. It’s the flipside of analysis, which focuses on the parts independently and too often gets lost in the trees with little understanding of the forest. When we move upstream to examine problems at their source, we become immersed in the study of complex systems. Understanding root causes—often many and complexly interrelated—is hard work, so it involves considerable time, effort, and upfront costs, but the return on that investment is considerable and the potential benefits are great.

If you work with data to solve real-world problems, I highly recommend this book. It will open your eyes to greater understanding.

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