1 Big idea to think about

  • If you can stop something upstream, it is easier than dealing with the thousand unresolved problems downstream.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Identify and name an insufferable problem you have in your life.
  • Set a goal to end the insufferable problem by identifying the precision intervention – the leverage point that will have a disproportionate effect in solving the problem. 

3 Questions to ask

  • What is one problem causing me a disproportionate amount of pain?
  • What are the things I could do to solve that problem upstream – before it happens?
  • Which solution is the precision intervention – one that will have a disproportionate effect in solving the problem?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • How solving problems upstream solves problems before they happen (4:50)
  • Redefining the definition of a hero (9:19)
  • How Expedia used upstream thinking to solve a downstream problem (10:26)
  • Solving big problems with upstream thinking: How Chicago Public Schools increased graduation rates (15:40)
  • The key to upstream problem solving: The one-by-one strategy (26:00)
  • The danger of tunnel thinking (28:31)
  • Anita Tucker and how to get out of tunnel thinking (30:08)
  • How to start solving problems upstream (34:22)
  • Finding the precision intervention (42:03)
  • Why we need to start preventing crises rather than responding to them (45:26)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Connect with Dan Heath

Website | LinkedIn | YouTube 

Greg McKeown (00:04):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I am the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. And I’m here with you on this journey to leverage the best of what others know. Can you think of a problem that irritates you repeatedly? What has the total cost of managing that been to you over several years? Today, I have invited the New York Times best-selling author, Dan Heath, onto the show to help answer the 10 X dilemma. That’s the problem I wrote Effortless to address. You’ll remember. 

So just to ask yourself these two questions: Do you want to achieve better results, even 10 X results?

Now ask the second question. Can you work ten times harder? 

The answer to the first question for most people is yes. The answer for most people to the second question is no. And that’s the dilemma. Mr. Heath will share stories. He has found in his research and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to solve problems before they happen. And as I write in Effortless, we might not think of prevention as the most obvious way to achieve residual results. But what else can you call it when a single intervention saves an incalculable number of problems down the way? Let’s get to it. 

Remember to teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within 24 to 48 hours of listening. That’s a small thing you can do that gives a high leverage result. Dan Heath, tell me about this new book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

Dan Heath (02:31):

This book was peculiar for me because this was the longest incubation period of any of the books I’ve worked on. My first note file that I kept was a Microsoft Word document I started in 2009. And what had sparked me to start the file was basically two things. The first was a parable, and this is the parable that I opened the book with, which goes like this. You and a friend are having a picnic on the side of a river, and you lay out your picnic blanket. You’re just about to eat. When all of a sudden you hear a shout from behind you in the direction of the river, you look back, and there’s a child thrashing about in the river and apparently drowning. So you and your friend instinctively dive in, and you get the child, you bring them to the shore.

And just as you’re starting to catch your breath, you hear a second shout. You look back; it’s another child, same situation thrashing about. So back in the water, you go, you fish them out. No sooner do you have them to shore, you hear two shouts. Now it’s two children in the water. And so back and forth, you go, you’re saving kids, and you’re getting exhausted. And right about that time, your friend swims to shore, steps out, and starts walking away as though to leave you alone. And you say, Hey, where are you going? I can’t save all these kids by myself. I need your help. And your friend says I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water. And that, in a nutshell, is what this book is about. It’s about the trap of getting in a cycle of reaction and always putting out fires, always responding to emergencies, and never taking the time to get upstream, to solve at the systems level.

All of the things that crowd out so much of our daily time and attention. So that parable, when I heard that for the first time. That planted the seed for this book. And then, a couple of months later, I had a conversation with a police chief. It was about something totally different, but in this conversation, he had the following thought experiment that just stuck in my head. He said, imagine you’ve got two police officers. And one of them, during the morning commute, when it gets busy downtown, stations herself at one of the intersections that’s particularly chaotic where there are a lot of accidents. And just by virtue of her visible presence, the drivers slow down, get a bit more cautious, and accidents are prevented. And meanwhile, there’s a second officer who also, during the morning commute, goes to a part of downtown where there’s a prohibited right turn signal.

And she stations herself around the corner. And when drivers sneakily try to make that right turn, she pops out, gives them a ticket, and moves on. And he said, which of these officers do you think did more for the public health and safety? Indisputably the first, right? Because accidents were prevented, maybe even lives were saved. But he said if you ask, who’s going to be promoted? Who’s going to be rewarded? Who’s going to be praised? It’s the second officer, because she comes back with this stack full of tickets that provide visible evidence of her work.  And meanwhile, this is where it gets really interesting. How does the first officer prove she did anything? How does she prove that she did something beyond just sitting in the parking lot of a donut shop? Because the people that she helped will never know they were helped. You know, there was a guy driving downtown who, in an alternate reality where she wasn’t there, would’ve been in an accident, but he doesn’t know.

All he knows is he slowed down a little bit when he saw her, nor does she know the specific people she helped. And so there’s this kind of maddening ambiguity about upstream work that I think is one of the reasons why our attention so often flipped downstream. You know, when you fish the child out of the river, you’re a hero. And you know, you’re a hero, and the child you save knows you’re a hero. But if you’re the officer that prevented an accident in an intersection, nobody really knows anything. And so that was one of the early fascinations that I had with this topic, is even though I think we have the instinct that getting upstream on problems is often the right thing to do, and the best thing to do, there are a lot of barriers in between here and there.

Greg McKeown (06:42):

We celebrate first responders. But what you are saying is that we need to be celebrating first preventers.

Dan Heath (06:50):

First preventers. Well said. Yeah. I mean, if you think about your own definition of a hero, if I say the word hero, probably what pops in your head is first responders. It’s police officers and firefighters. You know, in this time when we’re recording, it’s doctors and nurses putting their lives on the line to treat COVID, and these are all people who save the day; that’s what we value about them. That’s the nature of their heroism. But then there’s this whole other class of people who keep the day from needing to be saved, you know, instead of the firefighter who puts out the blaze in your house, there’s somebody who wrote smarter, more effective building codes that reduced the incidence of fire and people’s houses. And nobody knows who that person is. They’re probably never thanked. They probably never realize that they may have saved lives downstream. And, and that was intriguing to me that there are these invisible, upstream heroes out there that are doing work. That’s absolutely essential. And every bit as lifesaving as the downstream heroes we prefer, and yet often their work happens behind the scenes in this kind of opaque way.

Greg McKeown (07:58):

You share a story about Ryan O’Neil at Expedia that applies what you’re talking about here, but in a different domain. Tell us that story.

Dan Heath (08:07):

This is at the online travel site Expedia, and back in 2012, this guy named Ryan O’Neil, who’s in the customer experience group, he’s going through some data about their call center. So Expedia, even though it’s an online site, if something goes wrong with your reservation, you can call a one 800 number and get some help. And he finds something absolutely jaw-dropping, which is that for every hundred customers who book a transaction, 58 of them end up calling the call center for health. So just mind-boggling, right? And so he’s so confused, and he drags his boss to help him research what’s going on. Turns out the number one reason people are calling is to get a copy of their itinerary. Twenty million calls were logged in 2012. That’s like every man, woman, and child, in Florida calling in one year to get a copy of their itinerary.

That’s amazing. And, and so they’re just kind of slapping themselves on the forehead saying, how could, how could it come to this? And they, they eventually go to the CEO who endorses a, a kind of war room where they come together across silos to, to fight this problem, to keep customers from needing to call them. And the technical fixes are actually quite easy. You know, what was happening a lot of times is the itineraries which were sent by the way. It’s not like it just never occurred to them to send people an itinerary. They were sending them all along. It’s just that they would often end up in spam, or the customers would delete them thinking there were solicitations. And so they changed up a bunch of stuff with the way they sent the emails. They added self-service capacity on the website and on the IVR, you know, press two if you’re calling for a copy of your itinerary, and they go from 20 million copies to basically zero in a, in a very short period of time.

But what’s more interesting about this is not how do you fix that, but how does this happen? You know, how do you get to the point where you’ve got 20 million calls for something trivial, which by the way, it’s a hundred million problem at five bucks a call, and nobody notices? I mean, it took this guy digging through the data for it to even hit their desk. And the issue, I think, will be familiar to anybody who works in a large organization, business or otherwise, Expedia, like virtually every company, organizes itself in functions and silos. So you’ve got a marketing group, and they’re tasked with getting people to the website. So that’s what they’re judged on. And then you’ve got a product team that optimizes the website and makes it really smooth and user-friendly. So people are funneled toward a transaction. And then you’ve got a tech team, and they’re measured on things like uptime.

And then you’ve got the call center folks, and they’re measured on how quickly can I get someone off the phone and how happy are they with the quality of the resolution and each of those little buckets of work. And those goals make sense by themselves. I mean, it kind of tracks when I say it, but then if you ask whose job is it to keep customers from needing to call? The answer is nobody. There’s no one in that system that is rewarded for making that happen. And it’s even worse than that. No one would even be recognized. No one would even have a scoreboard where that would count as something positive. And so this is a classic example of upstream problems, you know, trying to prevent a call from happening rather than just responding it, responding to it efficiently O often requires integration in a way that organizations make unnatural that in organizations, we try to take big problems and, and compartmentalize them and break them down and then have everybody take their little piece of the puzzle and get more efficient at that. But then that works from a certain perspective. I mean, they were getting faster at delivering itineraries to people like that micro efficiency that engine was working, but then, it also blinds you to the bigger questions of why in the world are refilling so many calls in the first place. And that’s a phenomenon that I just saw again and again and again in this research.

Greg McKeown (12:03):

It’s systems thinking, trying to look at the big interrelated system to understand what’s really causing it. Does that sound right?

Dan Heath (12:13):

That’s exactly it. Yeah. And it, you know, earlier I was talking about putting out fires. I mean, if you think about that, literally, your house catches on fire. It’s very clear who owns that problem. It’s the fire, the firefighters they’re going to come, they’re going to put it out. It’s on their shoulders. But if you ask just a slightly reformulated question, whose job is it to keep your house from catching on fire? Now you’ve got a kind of mysterious question. There’s probably a half dozen constituents that, that all could have a stake in that ranging from the homeowner to the builder of the home, to the fire department, to the people who wrote those building codes, to the people who manufactured the materials in the home and, and all of them have a stake in it, but none of them really own it. You know, none of them are going to be judged based on the incidents of fire or lack thereof. And so in situations like that, where you can’t find a clear owner, often what happens is nothing, you know, because no one owns it, no progress happens. 

Greg McKeown (13:13):

I thought it was interesting in your research for this, how you applied upstream thinking to sort of quite big societal issues and, and, and how they could be addressed it in this way. For example, you talked about Chicago public schools and how they could prevent students from dropping out. Tell us about that.

Dan Heath (13:34):

This is one of my favorite examples because it’s so big. It’s almost like you can’t imagine there’s a solution. And then there is, so back in 1998, Chicago public schools was graduating about 52% of its students.

Greg McKeown (13:49):

That’s unbelievable.

Dan Heath (13:49):

It is horrid to think that. You know, an average teenager would have a coin flips chance of getting a diploma is just maddening. But if you think about what if you were a teacher and administrator in that era, that was, that was angry about this, that wanted something better. I mean, the first thing you’ve got to contend with is this is a massive system we’re talking about. I mean, 300,000 students attend CPS. If it was a city, it would be one of the 50 biggest cities in the United States. The budget of CPS is 6 billion, which is about the same as the whole city of Seattle. And so this is a huge, huge undertaking to think about changing this. The first ray of hope that came here was a few years later when an academic named Elaine Allensworth and some collaborators figured out that they could detect in the ninth grade with 80% accuracy who was going to go on to graduate and who wasn’t.

And so for the first time, they had this, this early warning potential, and furthermore, there seemed to be something peculiar about the ninth grade specifically, that students who were doing really well with their grades in eighth grade, who fell off track in the ninth grade, actually had worse chances of graduating than students who did really poorly in the eighth grade and then turned it around in the ninth grade. And so, all of a sudden, they have this inflection point, and they created this metric that they called freshman on track, where freshmen who were considered on track by this metric were three and a half times more likely to graduate. And it was very simple stuff. This is not like a seven-part formula. It was as simple as this did the student pass five full-year course credits. And did they avoid failing more than one core class?

So if you failed one semester of English or of math, you are okay, but two failures seem to be the tipping point. So just freeze there for a second. All we’ve done at this point is establish that we can predict who’s at risk, but we haven’t done anything to fix that. Right. So what they did was they started looking at CPS as a system that there’s a great quote from a healthcare expert named Paul Alden, who said every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. Right. And so if you think about CPS through that lens, what you realize is when you have a district that fails half the kids, year after year after year, you can’t just chalk that up to a lack of enthusiasm, or you can’t just think, oh, well, if our teachers just tried a little harder, we could do better.

What you have to realize is somehow you’ve unwittingly built an apparatus that is actually designed to fail half the students. And when they looked at their work through that lens, they started to spot things like discipline policies that were self-sabotaging. One example was they would dole out two-week suspensions in that era like candy. You know, a couple of kids would, would get in an argument and shove each other in the hallway. And boom, both of them would get slapped with a two-week suspension. But the thing is, the research now tells us if you take an at-risk kid and you kick ’em outta school for two full weeks, they come back, they never make it up. They’re lost. They end up failing that course. And, of course, on the freshman on-track metric failing two courses means you’re probably not going to graduate.

And so you, you start to, you start to find things like this that are buried. There’s like buried trails of causation, where the assistant principal, who was just dealing with this approximate problem of, okay, I got two kids in my office who just shoved each other. What do I do with them? Never in a million years did that assistant principal realize that, you know, offering them this get-tough suspension may well have doomed their chances of graduating from high school. But when you go investigating systems, you start to surface things like that. And then, most profound of all to me was they changed the way. So we can file that under let’s stop sabotaging ourselves, but most impressive was the way that they got on offense about helping students were, who were in trouble. They designed this model called the freshman success team, where teachers would meet across departments, the math teachers, the English, the biology would all come together with the administrators.

And they were armed with real-time student-by-student data on who was in danger of being off track, you know, ranked. So you, you might have a number one student who had a poor attendance record, failing math, failing English, and they would talk about them as individuals they’d say, okay, Michael, we talked about him last time. We’ve been calling his house when he doesn’t show up; he’s been attending more. We got him some help with math. His grades were suffering. They’re coming back up. He’s a little bit over failing. Now we’re doing better. Okay. Now let’s talk about Keisha, person by person through the list. And that was the engine of improvement when they could get that close to the problem when they could give it a human face, which was the one thing that they all shared is that they all cared about the fate of these individual kids.

And so, you know, school by school meeting by meeting month by month, they start making incremental improvements on, on these metrics. And four years later, exactly as the freshman on-track metric predicted, they start graduating, and you fast forward to 2018, they had taken the graduation rate from 52% to 78%. I mean, just, I, it’s hard to overstate the magnitude of that achievement. And this is something where I think the defeatist instinct in all of us would’ve said, oh, well, you know, this is, this is too big of a problem. These, these urban school districts, you know, they’re, they’re just hopeless, and what are we going to do about it’s too complicated. Their, families are in trouble, and they’re, they’re low income, and there’s all these problems. And we would’ve just shrugged our shoulders, but they didn’t. They figured out how to detect the problem early, and how to intervene. And ultimately, they went upstream to help. Tens of thousands of students have a better life.

Greg McKeown (19:57):

You are saying that much of the time, we give up because we’re overwhelmed before we even start to try to address the issue. It’s so complex. It feels so overwhelming. We just jump off to do something else right from the beginning.

Dan Heath (20:13):

That’s it. And I think this is one reason why people resist upstream solutions downstream. Saving the day is so much more tangible. Like another example of the same thing, I write about some work that the city of Rockford did on homelessness. And homelessness is one of these issues that also kind of triggers our defeatist instinct. Well, there have always been homeless people. There are always going to be homeless people. Their lives are really complicated. There’s issues of substance abuse. And often, they’ve been raised in environments where they were physically or sexually abused. And it’s just, it’s so complicated, and their lives are, are fraught in so many ways that we’re tempted to just look away. But in Rockford, as in many cities, they have adopted a totally different philosophy where they’ve said, number one, a homeless person is first and foremost, a human being who lacks a home, you know, in, in the past homeless people have been treated as, as needing substance abuse first and maybe some job training and, and, you know, eight other kinds of interventions.

And then maybe someday we can get them into a home, but in many cities in the U.S. and abroad, they’re embracing what this what’s called Housing first, which is to say, if people are in danger if, if their health is in danger, because of living on the street, what we need to do first, not last is get them in a home. And then the second innovation in Rockford was exactly the same innovation that we saw with CPS, which was that they started going on a person-by-person basis. They started keeping a real-time census of every homeless person in the community. I mean, it was, it was a Google doc. I looked over someone’s shoulder in Rockford, and they showed me, and it, it shows, well, you know, there’s Kevin, he’s still living under the bridge. And, and somebody saw him in his tent a few days ago.

And he came into the homeless shelter for lunch a few times last week. And they would get together all the people in the community who had some piece of the puzzle on homelessness, ranging from the health system to the VA, to the homeless shelters, to the police. And just as the teachers had done in Chicago public schools, they would talk about them as human beings, and they would address their peculiar issues. And when housing was available, somebody would go out and make the outreach. And person by person. They eventually eliminated everyone on the list, meaning they got them into housing. They were no longer homeless. And Rockford became the first city in the U.S. to eliminate the incidents of veteran and chronic homelessness. And so, this experience of researching the book just taught me that macro often starts with micro. That we think about these issues that seem really big, seem really thorny, that affect thousands or millions of people. And we expect that the solution is going to be kind of commensurately abstract. And in fact, when you go study people who have solved problems like that, it’s like they figured out a way to put a human face on a very abstract, complicated problem. And that becomes their, their, their venue of success is when they can get close enough to the problem that it has a name.

Greg McKeown (23:32):

What you’re saying is so beautiful. What you write in the book, you say you can’t help a thousand people or a million until you understand how to help one. This is a name by name is the term you use for it. But it’s a one-by-one strategy. This seems to be an absolute key to actually moving our thinking upstream.

Dan Heath (24:03):

I think that’s right. And I think, I mean, two things, I would say number one is until we’ve helped one person until we’ve helped an individual with a complicated case history, a complicated life, and, and we’ve moved the needle for them. We don’t understand anything. So, so they’re the first point is the way we come to understand difficult problems as we get closer to them like Brian Stevenson has a great quote about the power of proximity that, that we learn by getting close to problems, not by pontificating about them. And the second thing is, I mean, I, I know some people must be thinking, well, you know, the U.S. has 300 million plus citizens, how are you going to go person by person? But the thing is when, when you start at a micro level, you begin to discover the systemic levers that also need to be changed.

So, you know, back to Chicago public schools, I mentioned the discipline policies. When you uncover the discipline policy that kicked Kevin outta school for two weeks, you all realize this is madness. You know this is undoing our work to have a kid kicked outta school. And what’s he doing for those two weeks? It’s not like he’s sitting in his room, reading an algebra textbook. He’s probably getting involved with some of the forces that that would keep him unmotivated in school. And so now you understand part of the design of the system that you can fix that will then help a thousand other Kevins in the future. Do you see what I’m getting at? So micro is a bridge to macro. It’s not that you have to go person by person for the rest of time. It’s that the going person by person educates you on the nature of the system that has to evolve.

Greg McKeown (25:45):

An accelerated learning process.

Dan Heath (25:47):


Greg McKeown (25:48):

It seems to me that if you can stop something upstream, it is easier than dealing with the thousand unresolved problems downstream. Is that true?

Dan Heath (26:02):

In most cases? Yeah, certainly. And, and I think that, that our great enemy in all of this, and I think this probably rings true for your work as well, is something called tunneling, which is a word I’m taking from a, a book called Scarcity, a wonderful psychology book. And tunneling is this phenomenon where when we have a scarcity of resources or time, we kind of give up trying to systematically solve all of our problems. And we just get in this mode of, you know, picture being inside a tunnel and adopting tunnel vision. It’s like, you just wanna get forward. You just wanna make it a little bit further forward. And if you come across a problem, your incentive is to just work around it and get it behind you. However, you need to keep chugging, you know, and keep moving forward. But of course, the curse of being in a tunnel is that you can be in a tunnel for so long that you kind of lose sight of where you’re going, or does the tunnel have the destination that you want?

Might there be a quicker way to get there? And, and we get so in the mode of reaction and, and solving emergencies that we lose our ability to step out of the tunnel and think, Hey, are, are we really headed where we want to go? And, and so I think that’s what often holds people back. You know, when I tell these simple stories about relationships or parking lots or whatever, it seems almost magical, but, but the reason it’s, it’s, it’s hard to embrace that magic is because I think for a lot of us, our natural state is living in that tunnel that almost blinds us to any other reality.

Greg McKeown (27:40):

How does somebody get out of that tunnel if they’re tunneling on a particular problem or just generally in their life? How do they get out of what you call problem blindness in the first place and start exploring and being more solution-oriented?

Dan Heath (27:57):

Yeah, it’s a great question. So there’s a, there’s a study done by a woman named Anita Tucker, who, for her Harvard dissertation, she shadowed nurses around hundreds of hours, just following nurses and studying their day. And, and they were dealing with just one problem after another, as you might expect, they needed a medication that wasn’t available in the moment, or they ran out of towels. And so they had to, you know, run down the hall and steal towels for another division. Or there was one day when Anita Tucker reported a nurse trying to check out a new mother who just had a baby. And part of the checkout process is to remove the security anklet from the baby’s ankle, but it was missing. And so they do this frantic search and where’s the anklet, and eventually, find it in the baby’s bassinet. And then, a couple of hours later, another woman and another baby have the exact same problem.

They can’t again find the anklets, and they rush around again, and this time they can’t find it. So they have to figure out some other way to confirm the baby’s identity to make sure; I mean, the whole point of this is that people can’t abscond with other people’s babies. And so, Anita Tucker paints this picture of nurses as improvisational. They’re resourceful. They’re scrappy. They don’t go running to the boss every time they hit another obstacle. And when you look at it from that perspective, it sounds like a flattering portrait. And then if you, if you kind of turn this whole story on its head from the system perspective, you realize really these nurses have learned just to work around problems constantly. You know, if you run out of towels, you steal towels from, from the division down the hall, but that’s a picture of a system that never learns that never improves, right?

Because if, if you’re always working around problems by definition, you’re never solving them, which dooms you to repeating the same cycle the next week in the next month. And that, in a nutshell, is tunneling. And so the question of how do we escape the tunnel? I think in organizations, I’d be curious to get your perspective on how this ties in with essentialism. Because I think it’s related though a little different, but anyway, in organizations like in the nurse situation, a lot of health systems have started creating these almost temporary escapes from the tunnel intentionally like, like one example is what’s called a safety huddle that health systems will organize in the morning where doctors and nurses will come together for a very short meeting, maybe 15, 20 minutes and talk about safety issues from the day prior, you know, medications that were almost given to the wrong patient or problems that almost happen.

And they’ll talk about what happened there and how can we make sure those things don’t occur again. And then they’ll look forward to the next day, and they’ll say, okay, do we have any complex cases coming today? What should we make sure we’re paying attention to just to make sure that errors or preventable problems don’t happen? And what I love about that is it’s just a very short-term thing, right? 15, 20 minutes in a meeting. And yet that’s exactly the kind of forum that those nurses would have needed to, to escalate some of these issues like, Hey, yesterday, we had this weird thing where the anklets came off of two different babies and, and I know we’re putting them on tight enough because I watched one of them, you know, we need to figure out what’s going on here. We can’t expect these nurses to just, you know, call a time out when they’ve got 12 patients who are, who need their help and, and conduct some kind of formal root cause analysis. That’s not reasonable. You know, we need to honor the demands on the nurses. And at the same time, we need to make sure that these systems are able to learn. And so I love the safety huddle as a, as a kind of real-world realistic model for how to give us just enough time out of the tunnel that we don’t stay in it forever.

Greg McKeown (31:54):

Someone who’s listening to this and they are already overwhelmed; they’re already feeling like they have too much to do, which leads to this tunneling type of living. Where should they start? I mean, give me a couple of things that they could do really easy first steps.

Dan Heath (32:17):

I think the first step is I, I talked to this guy named Steve Spear, who’s an organizational theorist and an expert on learning organizations. And he said that change begins with an insufferable frustration. And so I think my, of that, I loved it too. I can’t believe I didn’t figure out a way to get that quote in the book. It’s so good.  I think my first piece of advice was to wait until you get good and frustrated. You know, if indeed your life does feel like you’re in the tunnel all the time and you’re just sick of it, you know, at that moment when you’re sick of it, that’s the fire to fuel the change and, and look there are people that are a lot smarter than me about, about personal productivity and, and life planning and so forth.

But, but what I’m saying, I is a really easy and optimistic thing, which is, you know, you take an hour out of the tunnel, and you go for a walk, and you figure out, you know, what are five problems that I’ve run into, you know, again and again, in my life or in my work. And, and, and, and just sit with that realization that absent some kind of upstream planning, you will continue to face them forever. And if that insufferable frustration doesn’t get, you fired up to take some steps, then wait until it gets even more insufferable. But when you finally get to that point where you’re willing to say, I’m going to put in one extra hour of work today, you know, for the sake of preventing a hundred in the future, that’s when innovation happens.

Greg McKeown (33:55):

So you have this insufferable frustration. You name it. And the very next thing you do is what?

Dan Heath (34:03):

Identify the recurring problems. I think from, if you’re thinking, and from a personal perspective, it’s like, what is it that’s eating up your time and, and energy and, and what are the patterns there?

Greg McKeown (34:16):

You name it, this I, this, I get, get really specific about it. And I get that it could be different after that. But what do you see as the second step?

Dan Heath (34:29):

After identifying the problem?

Greg McKeown (34:32):

Is it causative? You’re saying, okay, what’s causing this problem to happen? Is that the next step? Or are you, what’s the next question somebody should ask?

Dan Heath (34:41):

Ironically the bigger the problem that maybe the easier this is to see because like, for instance, let me zoom out and take an example related to crime. So in Chicago, they were having a crime wave, which, which happens periodically every few years. And there was a wave of violence. A lot of young men were being killed. There was, there was a lot of dissatisfaction, you know, back to Steven Spear’s insufferable frustration. People were tired of seeing young people killed, but what in the hell do you do? You, you’ve got energy, you’ve got resources, you’ve got people willing to help, but, but there’s no sense of what we do to prevent this. And, and I think that’s what your question gets to. And I think that’s where the next step is to get more proximate to the problem. And that’s exactly what they did in Chicago.

They figured out, look, we’re all dealing with a bunch of armchair theories about why crime is happening. A lot of people were focused on gang violence. And so the assumption was, all of the murders are a byproduct of gangs jockeying for power, but they wanted to test themselves. And so, a couple of academics at the University of Chicago made a deal with the medical examiner to look over the reports of the last 100 young men who had been killed in Chicago. And they studied them, you know, to see, you know, was this indeed gang-related or something else. And what they discovered was very different from what they had expected. For instance, a typical case might look something like this. There were a couple of groups of guys that had had an encounter. And one guy from one of the groups accused a guy from the other group of stealing his bike.

And there’s a, there’s an argument. And it’s escalating. And then the person who had been accused of stealing the bike got frustrated and turned his back and started walking away. And the other person saw him turn his back and felt disrespected, pulled out a gun, and shot him in the back. It’s a real story. And so, to their horror, they realize, Hey, a lot of this stuff is not gang-related. A lot of it is, you know, young men getting in the same kind of dumb fights that young men all over the world get into. But in Chicago, there’s such easy access to guns that these things escalate beyond what anybody would’ve guessed. And so, as one of the academics told me, Harold Pollock, he said, you know, at the University of Chicago, we have to have equations for everything.

And so our equation for murder became young men, plus often alcohol plus access to guns plus impulsivity. That’s the recipe. And so, from an upstream perspective, what that equation lays out is possible courses of intervention. You could imagine an intervention to try to reduce access to guns. You could try to imagine an intervention to reduce access to alcohol. There’s nothing you can do about them being young men, or you could do something about impulsivity. And in fact, that’s exactly what they ended up doing is, is they funded a program to try to teach young men to just take a few seconds, to think carefully about situations before they escalate it, to just calm down and try to just get a brief, brief pause before they did the knee jerk escalation thing that was leading to such trouble. It was a program called Becoming a Man.

And as it turned out, it was very successful. It reduced the rate of violent crimes by more than half, just this one intervention to try to get students and teenagers to be less impulsive. And so that’s, that’s a kind of model that we could, we could apply to a lot of different situations is we use the energy created by the, the frustration with a recurring problem to fuel curiosity about solutions. And the way we begin to identify solutions is we get as close as possible to the texture of the problems in the same way that they reviewed those medical examiner reports.

Greg McKeown (38:50):

It sounds to me like we could think about there being three steps in the process. Step one name, the insufferable frustration. 

Greg McKeown (39:00):

Step two is to set as a goal end said insufferable frustration. But that isn’t obvious because we’ve lived with it for so long, right? That we think what we need to do is manage it. So you set as the intent, end crime end, dropout rates, end named issue.  And three is to look for the easy intervention, which isn’t to say that the whole problem is easy, but we are looking for what’s the California roll of this issue.

Dan Heath (39:34):

Yes and no. I mean, I think what you’re looking for is the leverage point. And so the, you know, Pollock’s equation of young men, plus alcohol plus guns, plus impulsivity. Those are your independent leverage points. And then your solution is, well, which of these do we think we can move in some capacity? And they chose impulsivity. Maybe another city would’ve chosen a different one. And I think often what happens next is not that there’s an easy bottled solution that we can take off the shelf, but it’s more like the Chicago public school example or the Rockford homelessness example. We talked about earlier where for different students and for different homeless people, the recipes actually looked very different. You know that one student might need a little extra math tutoring. Another student might need someone to call their home and pester them when they didn’t show up for first period. And another student might be walking their sibling to school every day. And so they end up missing first period every day, but it’s not because they’re slacking. It’s because they have a responsibility. And so, you know, what can we do to make sure they don’t fail a core course during that time? The recipes are very different, but the process is similarly minded toward the result, if that makes sense.

Greg McKeown (40:49):

I think it does. And I think the word that I would use to describe what you just said is precision intervention. You’re trying to find that thing, that lever, that particular part that will have a disproportionate effect in changing the dynamic.

Dan Heath (41:06):

The book is actually organized by seven questions that upstream leaders need to answer. And I, I won’t belabor those right now, but, but the point is there’s a lot of things we have to think about kind of simultaneously as we move upstream, and we’ve hit on several of them. One is where’s the leverage point? Another is, can we get an early warning of the problem? Like the in Chicago public schools, they figured out in the ninth grade; they could figure out who was going to graduate and who wasn’t, which buys us runway to do something about the problem. There is the issue of how do we bring together the right collaborators on this problem, back to this notion of diffuse ownership and accountability. Like we can’t solve homelessness or substance abuse or these other issues without bringing together everybody that has a stake in it.

And then there’s others that are equally thorny. Like, how do we measure success? How do we know we are succeeding? How do you prove when something does not happen? We live in a world where we measure things that do happen, but prevention is about making sure things don’t happen. How will we know that we’ve succeeded? And then the last of the questions, which is a whole nother can of worms, is how do we find someone to pay for what does not happen? You know, our, our entire health system, as an example, is a fee-for-service system, meaning no one rings the cash register until you report with a problem, and then they do something to fix you, and they charge you for it. But, but, but who is it that is getting paid to keep you healthy? To a first approximation, no one. And that’s, of course, a major incentive problem with the health system is as, as one expert told me, we think nothing of paying $40,000 a year for a patient’s insulin, but we can’t seem to round up a thousand dollars for a program that might have prevented them from ever getting diabetes.

Greg McKeown (42:54):

It’s so true and so powerful. At the very end of the book, you quote, try and believe this world a little better than you found it. We’ve all heard that before, but you, you identified that it was Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and so on. And yeah. Comment, comment about that for a moment.

Dan Heath (43:18):

I think that that’s the essence of this, this upstream philosophy, that, that this is a book that’s really a kind of love letter to, to upstream heroes, which is to say, invisible heroes that we live in a world that values the rescue and the recovery and, and the drama. And, and meanwhile, there’s a whole nother set of people who don’t save the day but keep the day from needing to be saved. And I think the way our world is evolving, we need to increasingly be in the business of preventing crises rather than getting better at responding to them. You know, it’s climate change is an obvious example where even, even slowing the rate of the rate at which the earth is heating up will have just massive effects downstream. And so we need the people who are doing the quiet work of changing systems and changing incentives to avoid a world where all of a sudden we’re plunged into crisis.

And we need millions of people to adopt heroics to survive that, that in some ways, our goal should be to reduce the need for heroism, as, as strange as that sounds, at least a downstream heroism. And so that’s what that quote meant to me is to, to think, you know, how can we leave this place a little bit better than we found that can we give for the first time a positive answer to that MIT professor’s question about, have we ever done something that would benefit future generations without necessarily looking at our own interest? 

Greg McKeown (45:03):

A love letter to the upstreamers makes me think that this should be an upstreamers award that could be started. Something to think about there. This is Dan Heath. He’s written another fantastic book, absolutely worth every moment to invest in it Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. It’s been a pleasure to have you, Dan.

Dan Heath (45:25):

Thank you so much. Really enjoyed the conversation.

Greg McKeown (45:32):

If you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive year long access to The Essentialism Academy. It’s a $300 value. Just send a photo of your review along with your name, address, and email to info@gregmckeown.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast right now so that you can receive the next episode. New episodes come out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now tying this all the way back to the beginning. Here’s a quick way for you to immediately apply what we’ve been talking about. Can you think of a problem that irritates you repeatedly? What has the total cost of managing that been to you over several years? What is the next step? You can immediately take in a few minutes to move toward solving this. Thank you. Really. Thank you for listening.