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How 'upstream leaders' can unlock the power of preventative thinking

You can imagine how stunned Ryan O'Neill, head of the Customer Experience Group at Expedia, was when he learned that 58 of every 100 customers who booked travel on Expedia's website called the company's call center for support afterward.

In 2012, more than 20 million customers placed calls to Expedia for the same reason: to get a copy of their trip itinerary. The itineraries weren’t making their way to inboxes for a host of reasons, including customers mistyping their email address, emails being routed to spam folders or accidental deletions. Making matters worse, the Expedia website didn’t offer a way for customers to collect their itineraries themselves.

O’Neill and his colleagues set up a war room to determine how to save Expedia customers from needing to call them. The solutions came quickly—adding an automated ‘resend my itinerary’ option to the company’s voice response system, thwarting spam filters by changing how emails were sent, and creating an online tool that customers could use to self-serve.

It worked. Since 2012, a mere 15 percent of customers have called Expedia for support. This is a far cry from 58 percent, before the changes. The intervention to reduce call volume was an exercise in heading off the problem at the pass.

That’s the conceit—and the opening story—of Dan Heath’s new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

“So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We handle one problem after another, but we never get around to fixing the systems that caused the problems,” he writes.

"So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We handle one problem after another, but we never get around to fixing the systems that caused the problems." - Dan Heath

Of course, in some situations, we’re hit with a crisis we never saw coming and must respond. But in the course of our normal everyday working and living, it’s worth considering how often we are firefighting—and how much of that could be alleviated by hitting pause and asking some targeted questions. Upstream is a meditation on, and manual for, big-picture, systems thinking. Heath explores dozens of startling ways companies, societies, and individuals can prevent problems before they begin—or take several steps back to virtually erase existing problems.

Like the way a major urban school district cut its dropout rate in half after it realized that it could predict which students would drop out, from as early as ninth grade. Or how Iceland has pretty much eliminated teenage alcohol and drug abuse by intentionally changing the nation’s culture (spoiler: more sports and other extracurricular activities for youth).

By conducting more than 300 interviews and drawing on details and facts from an equal number of published sources, Heath offers a wide-sweeping analysis of the power of the big picture, which he refers to as “Upstream thinking.”

[Related read: 3 ways retailers can prepare for the road ahead]

Upstream leadership

Upstream thinking requires a particular kind of leadership. Qualities include humility and empathy that may require a brain rewiring for many of us. Heath shares an unorthodox and successful approach that one manager (and clinical psychologist) used to handle a dispute between two of her staff members.

"Forrest brought the two women together in her office… and started by stating, 'I'm accountable for this. Let me tell you how I'm responsible. I've heard rumors that you weren't getting along, and I've heard from your boss that there was trouble. You know what I did? I looked the other way. I thought, They’ll work it out. I ignored you and I'm sorry,'" writes Heath.

Then she asked each employee to tell the story of the situation as though they were the only ones in the world responsible for the current circumstances. Of course, both women had trouble doing this and the conversation quickly devolved into a blame game. The manager redirected them to take responsibility for the problem.

She asked each employee to tell the story of the situation as though they were the only ones in the world responsible for the current circumstances.

Eventually, they got it. One employee noted that she assumed her colleague’s incessant questions were mean-spirited and acknowledged that she could have explained what she wanted better. The other conceded that she could have asked to understand instructions more clearly.

“When [the manager] prodded them to explain the situation as if they were the ones responsible, they uncovered their power. They went from feeling like victims of the problem to feeling like co-owners of the solution,” reports Heath.

[Related read: Radical Candor: Be a better boss by saying exactly what you think]

Questions upstream leaders should ask

Among the seven questions for upstream leaders that make up the bulk of the book, Heath asks, “How will you unite the right people?”

Many of the stories of problems solved by upstream thinking involve a diverse group of people getting together to own a problem. Like the manager and her two employees, when everyone feels responsible, the urge to pass the buck can be lessened and energy can be focused on powerful solutions that employ the expertise of each member of a team.

Heath cites the example of the near eradication of a troubling scourge of underage drinking in Iceland. In the late 1990s, teenagers as young as 13 reported regularly binge drinking. While this behavior might seem to fall under the purview of parents,

“Many people and government agencies had to cope with the consequences of teenage substance abuse, but it was no one person’s or agency’s job to prevent it… But many people cared enough to try. So the first step… was to surround the problem—to recruit a multifaceted group of people and organizations united by a common aim,” writes Heath.

And with the perspectives of a wide range of experts came upstream, out-of-the-box thinking. They realized that instead of focusing on individual behaviors, they needed to address the reasons behind them. In this case, it was boredom or too much time on teens’ hands.

With the perspectives of a wide range of experts came upstream, out-of-the-box thinking. They realized that instead of focusing on individual behaviors, they needed to address the reasons behind them.

With so many different, invested parties on the case, a number of ideas and activities for youth, besides drinking, emerged. More sports and clubs. A better-enforced curfew (in Iceland, daylight can extend almost around the clock). And even the responsibility for scripting and shooting anti-drinking television commercials.

Twenty years after the campaign began, the teenage culture had been transformed. In fact, most of today’s teenagers aren’t even aware of the movement to keep kids engaged and away from alcohol. “They’ve simply grown up in a world where substance abuse is largely absent,” writes Heath.

Other questions that the author urges leaders to consider include:

  • 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?

In each chapter, Heath offers up the barriers that stand in the way of change, prevention, or progress and shares examples of forward thinking. Upstream is a must-read for leaders and thinkers alike. With so many compelling stories of lives saved, companies re-imagined, and problems turned on their head, you may find yourself looking at your own life and work differently.

So much business advice, so little time to digest it. That's why we're reading for you—distilling a business tome or recent bestseller down to a few key takeaways that will hopefully whet your appetite for more.

Our last read? Check out why and how you can replace your fear of missing out with the joy of missing out.