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. No matter how valiantly the rescuer struggles, sooner or later he will be overwhelmed, resources and strength exhausted. The upstream thinker understands this and focuses on underlying causes and thus can do the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest period of time.

Where in your life, in your work, are you hyper focused on solving the problem right in front of you that you may be missing the opportunity to fix the systems that create the problem? One trap is that 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 together with soliciting the cooperation of others. Thus system fixing is definitely more time consuming than EACH one-off problem fixing effort but far from so when compared to the collective sum of resources/energy put into one-off “solutions” over time. 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

Parable; Original Version: “I am standing by the shore of a swiftly flowing river and hear the cry of a drowning man. I jump into the cold waters. I fight against the strong current and force my way to the struggling man. I hold on hard and gradually pull him to shore. Just when he begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. I jump into the cold waters. I fight against the strong current, and swim forcefully to the struggling woman. I grab hold and gradually pull her to shore. I lift her out on the bank beside the man and work to revive her with artificial respiration. Just when she begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. I jump into the cold waters. Fighting again against the strong current, I force my way to the struggling man. I am getting tired, so with great effort I eventually pull him to shore. I lay him out on the bank and try to revive him with artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, I hear another cry for help. Near exhaustion, it occurs to me that I’m so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore and applying artificial respiration that I have no time to see who is upstream pushing them all in…” A story told by Irving Zola – but is used in an article by John B. McKinlay in “A Case for Refocusing Upstream: The Political Economy of Illness” McKinlay, J.B. (1981)

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