How To Solve Problems Before They Happen

Picture a busy city road in the middle of the day.

One afternoon, Police Officer A stands in plain view of drivers passing by. Their very presence causes the drivers to slow down, as we all tend to do when we see a police officer.

On another very similar afternoon, Police Officer B stands around the corner out of view. When a driver speeds by, the officer gets in their car, pulls the driver over, and issues a ticket.

Downstream vs Upstream

When we work downstream (i.e. reacting to events after they happen) our work is easy to see, measure, and praise. As in the case of Police Officer B.

When we work upstream (preventing events from happening at all) our work can be more powerful but less tangible. As in the case of Police Officer A.

Upstream work involves finding solutions to prevent a problem from happening. Examples include a more visible police presence to reduce traffic accidents, eating healthy to avoid heart issues, or developing self-serve features to reduce the need for a customer to contact support.

When faced with these events, look at what we could have done seconds before the event happened, minutes before, hours before, months before, years before… At multiple points upstream, there are opportunities to prevent bad things from happening.

Why We Don’t Prevent More Problems

As a society, we most often address problems after they happen, not before. We issue penalties to dangerous drivers. We treat heart issues with medication. We hire more customer support staff. There are three main reasons why we don’t do more to prevent problems:

  1. Problem blindness: the belief that negative outcomes are natural, inevitable, out of our control.
  2. A lack of ownership: police, doctors, and customer support staff are responsible for solving problems, not preventing them. We rarely appoint people to prevent bad things from happening.
  3. Short term, reactive thinking: solving the problem after it happens is easier and measurable. Implementing ways to solve problems before they happen requires more resources (time, attention, money) that we don’t make available.

7 Questions to Ask to Avoid Problems

So you want to work upstream? These seven questions can help you to form a strategy:

  1. How will you unite the right people? Bring together influential people across many different groups with a shared aim. For example, assemble folks from customer support, product, design, and leadership to solve a usability issue with your software.
  2. How will you change the system? We’re all locked into various systems in our companies, homes, and lives. Change the system to solve the problem. For example, for every $1 spent on water fluoridation, society saves $20 in dental costs. By going far back upstream (to the water we drink), we solved a problem much further downstream. What’s the water you take for granted as invisible, unchangeable?
  3. Where can you find a point of leverage? If you’re not sure where to start, just try things. You may get a small win that opens doors for larger change down the road.
  4. How will you get early warning of the problem? Use data!
  5. How will you know when you’re succeeding? Again, use data to assess your progress.
  6. How will you avoid doing harm? Sometimes a solution can make the situation worse or have other, unintended consequences. Example: the Cobra effect. You can mitigate this by using feedback mechanisms to iterate early and often.
  7. Who will pay for what does not happen? Our governments give a lot of money to hospitals to treat sick people, but very little to prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Upstream work can be costly (and not always guarantee a good result), but someone needs to fund it to make it happen.

The Prophet’s Dilemna

How can you measure success when success is defined as things not happening? Upstream work requires us to be brave enough to experiment with creative solutions and humble enough to know we may not get any credit when we succeed. Don’t let that stop you!

I wrote this post to summarize and help me remember a fantastic book called Upstream by Dan Heath.


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