Upstream & Blueprint Connections

“Upstream efforts are those intended to prevent problems before they happen or reduce the harm caused by those problems.”

~ Dan Heath

Let’s consider the difference between upstream and downstream actions. Downstream actions are easier to see and easier to measure.  Upstream actions work towards preventing problems and/or reducing the impact of those problems; these actions are, however, more ambiguous and involve systems thinking.  With that being said, let’s explore how to move towards upstream thinking and address the three barriers that may get in your way.

  1. Problem blindness is the belief that negative outcomes are natural or inevitable. Some Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) leaders had problem blindness regarding their dropout and graduation rates with the mindset, “It’s regrettable, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”  Do you think your district/school suffers from problem blindness? If so, in what areas?  How might you support your district/school in addressing problem blindness?
  2. With Tunneling, people are so accustomed to reacting to problems—and working around them—that they never get around to fixing them. Surely we can all relate to this. Why do you think tunneling is such a powerful trap? Why isn’t it more natural to step out of the tunnel and engage in systems thinking?  How might Covid be causing tunneling right now for your district, schools, parents, students, and community?
  3. A Lack of Ownership means that the parties who are capable of addressing a problem are saying, “That’s not mine to fix.”  Chicago Public Schools’ leaders made the graduation rate their problem.  They took ownership.  Have you ever been part of a group that took ownership of a problem that they hadn’t created?  How did that sense of “owning” the problem change the way they approached it? 

In better understanding the three key barriers to upstream thinking, consider a problem that you’re concerned about as it relates to your district, school, or family. In the context of that problem, which one of those three barriers has been the hardest to overcome?  How might you support your district/school in addressing problem blindness, tunneling, and lack of ownership to move upstream?