You are walking by the side of a river when you hear screams of distress: a child is drowning. You plunge into the water and speedily pull the child to safety. However, just as you deposit your burden upon the shore, you hear another call for help to which you swiftly and successfully respond. Yet just as you do, yet another child comes down the river, also in need of rescue. As you dive back in the river, you see further upstream even more struggling children. You see someone running along the shoreline and you shout out for assistance. They reply, “I’m headed upstream to stop whomever is tossing all these kids into the river.” – Parable attributed to Irving Zola, 1935-1994

Upstream Thinking is Systems Thinking, using Critical Thinking Skills to get to root causes. 

Fixing systems frequently requires a higher order (but learnable!) skill set than problem solving. Fixing systems is often more complex, requiring more analysis, more information gathering and thus it is easy to fall into the short term faster, long term slower trap of focusing on problem solving v. fixing systems, on symptoms instead of root causes. Another trap is that we are good at problem solving and not so good at systems fixing and we humans tend to like sticking to the familiar, to like doing what we are good at, to do what feels emotionally satisfying.

Closing Quotes:

“If you are too busy to build good systems, then you will always be too busy.” – Brian Logue

“Addiction is finding a quick and dirty solution to the symptom of the problem, which prevents or distracts one from the harder and longer-term task of solving the real problem.” – Donella H. Meadows, 1940-2001, The Limits to Growth and Thinking in Systems: a Primer.

“We act as if simple cause and effect is at work. We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong. We look for the one action, or the one person, that created this mess. As soon as we find someone to blame, we act as if we’ve solved the problem.” – Margaret J. Wheatley, b. 1944

As always, I share what I most want and need to learn. – Nathan S. Collier