Upstream Thinking . . . Where to find a point of leverage?

“I absolutely believe that when we isolate ourselves — when we allow ourselves to be shielded and disconnected from those who are vulnerable and disfavored, we sustain and contribute to these problems.”

~ Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder

This year’s Blueprint Bulletin theme is around Upstream thinking for systems improvement. The first Blueprint Bulletin began our series where the primary focus was around the three forces that push us downstream:  1) problem blindness, 2) lack of ownership, and 3) tunneling. The second Blueprint Bulletin focused on the first of Dan Heath’s seven questions for Upstream leaders, How to unite the right people?  The last Blueprint Bulletin supported our thinking and understanding around How to change the system?

This edition will continue with Heath’s third question, Where to find a point of leverage?  The thinking around where to find a point of leverage largely has to do with getting closer to and immersing yourself in the problem, going to the source . . . in other words, proximity.  Dan Heath shares a story of a design firm who was trying to anticipate the problems (thinking upstream) that elderly people might face in navigating buildings and airports.  Conducting focus groups with the elderly population would provide some data. The design firm could also walk alongside the elderly as well as review incident reports of accidents and falls. That data would not tell the complete story; the design firm still would not truly understand the implications of their stories and this data until they can walk in the elderlies’ shoes.  The design firm decided to use an “age simulation suit” which is designed to make you feel what it’s like to be old.  After walking through the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, they determined that since it takes longer to get from place to place, the elderly would need more places to rest. The elderly would need places to grab when they are wobbly and lose their balance.  Ramps needed cues to signal that the floor would slope.  Escalators needed an extra “flat” step for the elderly to gain balance when approaching and exiting the escalator.  Because the design firm got “closer to the problem”, they determined several points that could be leveraged to prevent problems from happening.

How might this thinking apply to schools and districts?  As we get closer to the problem, what might we look for?  What problems or barriers might we anticipate and can possibly prevent? How might we use a subgroup, or smaller population, to think through potential barriers and put in place “interventions” ahead of time to avoid the problem to begin with?

Heath states, “Many successful upstream interventions are actually very expensive programs targeted at small groups of people” (2020, p. 126).  When thinking about working with subgroups of staff or students, we need to consider the bigger picture, and in essence, do a cost-benefit analysis.  What might this mean?  Heath explains that a Chicago Crime Lab estimates the social cost of a single gunshot injury is $1.5 million.  A program that the Crime Lab put in place where convicted violent criminals, who otherwise would be likely to re-offend, are given a fresh start, placed in a paying job, and given cognitive behavioral therapy which costs about $22,000 per person per year.  Let’s take this same thinking to the healthcare system.  Ponder for a moment the difference between preventative healthcare services vs. emergency room care costs.  Where would we rather spend our energy and funds?  When thinking about preventative efforts, we would hope they would save us money in the long run.  Either way, it’s our moral responsibility to prevent problems from happening in the first place.  What upstream thinking would help us with our students and staff?

Let’s take the healthcare example one step further . . . how might we get closer to the problem?  How might that doctor get to know her patient so well that she can leverage this understanding?  In other words, what can a doctor do to help a patient who lacks healthy food or is late to appointments due to lack of transportation or is chronically stressed? Hmmmm . . . perhaps those same questions could be asked of us as educators.  How might we move outside of our system and partner with external organizations and community partners to think and move upstream to help our students?  How might this time and energy pay off in the long run?

“Getting proximate is not a guarantee of progress.  It’s a start, not a finish.  Upstream change often means fumbling our way forward, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and under what conditions.  But in this context, even a defeat is effectively a victory.  Because every time we learn something, we fill in one more piece of the map as we hunt for the levers that can move the world” (Heath, 2020, p. 133).  With this thinking, what connections might be made to improvement cycles?

The Blueprint Connections, Leader’s Corner, and Teacher’s Corner sections will be utilized to confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.

Blueprint Connections

“Upstream change often means fumbling our way forward, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and under what conditions.”

~  Dan Heath

W. Edward Deming, the father of the quality improvement process, is often quoted as saying, “Each system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.”  In the case of schools, many of the systems and programs that have been implemented have not resulted in improved outcomes for all students because they were not examined repeatedly over time while changing the process along the way. If systems thinking in education is utilized effectively, feedback is a way of bringing attention to the gaps between desired and actual results. Systems are used as a way of leveraging strengths to improve over time. Systems thinking allows you to learn from failures and focus on overall improvement. How might you utilize systems as a way of engaging in continuous improvement over time?  

The Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process, or MICIP for short, defines a system as “a series of interdependent and aligned processes and people working together toward a common goal to bring desired results.”  What connections might you make amongst MICIP’s definition of a system, the continuous improvement process, and upstream thinking about uniting the right people, getting closer to the problem, and identifying the points of leverage?  

You guessed it . . . improvement cycles!  The purpose of an improvement cycle (input, process, output, feedback ~ IPOF model) is to implement practices to improve student outcomes.  Based on data, you first begin with your district/school focus or goal and determine what input will be needed to accomplish that goal.  Your input can be an implementation plan/strategy/guide, a vision . . . in other words, the input directs the thinking within an improvement cycle. The process describes the actions, denoted by role, that must be taken for the input to be effective. The process also addresses the interconnection between different components of the system. Output is what you get after you apply the input-aligned actions identified within the process.   And, the feedback compares the actual results to the desired results. If those two are not the same, you have not achieved your goal and you need to change the input, process, or both.

To foster change in practice in your district, using improvement cycles:

  • helps build routines for people in the district and in buildings,
  • develops some “early wins” for a district by focusing on practices that are relatively strong (and have most of the components in place already) and just in need of improvement,
  • establishes a practice for developing and refining ideas, so that it becomes a protocol for “piloting” new ideas,
  • changes the dialog from “failing” to “finding opportunities to improve”, and
  • gives everyone a tool they can use on their own in any aspect of their own work.

The Leader’s and Teacher’s Corner sections will support you with deeper thinking around how to get closer to the problem, find points of leverage, and dispel the notion that prevention must save money.  

Leader’s Corner

“I lurked outside our school on a chilly January morning, and when I saw Jabari’s mom drop him off, I commenced my project.  Wearing jeans and fleece, carrying a backpack, and only about 5 feet tall, I easily blended in with students. . . . What I observed that day will never leave me.”

~ Elena Aguilar

In Elena Aguilar’s book Coaching for Equity: Conversations That Change Practice, a scenario perfectly depicts getting closer to the problem.  In this example, based on achievement data around African American students, the Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) determined that equity would be the school’s focus or goal.  To prove or disprove causation, the team determined that getting closer to the problem would be the best way to gather additional data.  One of the ILT members who could easily blend in shadowed a student, Jabari, for a day without the student knowing he was being shadowed.  Using a teacher-to-student interaction tracker, the ILT member tracked every exchange an adult had with Jabari.  Of the interactions noted, 68% were in the negative category, 20% were neutral, and 12% were positive.  The data showed that the majority of the adult comments that were made to Jabari focused on his body and behavior.  Jabari seemed to be a compliant young man and did as he was told.  “Of the 14 different adults who interacted with Jabari that day, only one expressed care: ‘Nice to see you today, Jabari,’ she said.  Very little was said about his thinking, writing, reading, or anything related to his academics.  He was never called on or praised.”

This ILT could have used staff and student perception data to determine if there was an equity issue and possible cause(s).  More than likely, however, that data might not tell the true picture of “the day in the life of a student.” Getting closer to the problem provided the team with leverage points to better understand their data and the causations that could be action-planned around.  As it relates to interrupting inequity, there are many factors that are outside of adults’ control.  By adults focusing on the factors that they have control of, including how kids are talked to every day, the instructional strategies used, and what the children are asked to do while in the classrooms, gives actionable steps that can be monitored and tweaked.  With that being said, how might improvement cycles be utilized for implementing a strategy which ultimately interrupts inequity? What might be the input? Processes?  Desired output?  How might feedback be used to make adjustments to the input and/or processes for each iteration?  What is the evidence to know that the desired goal has been achieved?  

As we discussed above, an example was used of getting closer to a problem in order to identify leverage points. Can you think of situations where you consciously pushed yourself closer to the source of a problem and, as a result, you uncovered some solutions that might have otherwise been hidden?

Teacher’s Corner

“. . . Because every time we learn something, we fill in one more piece of the map as we hunt for the levers that can move the world.”

~ Dan Heath

In Upstream, Heath proposes that in order to find leverage points, you need to immerse yourself in the problem.  One way to tackle this is to consider the risk and protective factors for the problem that you’re trying to prevent.  Problems have a variety of factors and each of those factors is a potential leverage point.  Heath also presents an alternative to the focus on risk and protective factors.  He suggests that your leverage point may be a specific subpopulation of people.  A subpopulation like the students you teach!  

The problems that many students face are overwhelming.  What can a teacher do to help a student who lacks healthy food or basic health care?  How can you help students that are chronically stressed?  As adults, we not only want to believe that there are leverage points for these problems, we want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them.  Leverage points are points of power.  They are an invitation to think more broadly about the many ways there might be to enact change.  Being able to reach within the system and align efforts with others who can help is a benefit of being a district using the Blueprint framework.  Teachers are continually examining data to determine the needs of students. This information is shared with the Building Network utilizing the Communications System.  Decisions are made and action plans are implemented.  Non-academic needs are met through the Student Support Network.  This network specifically addresses the social, emotional, health, nutritional, and behavioral needs of each child.  Systems enable teachers and leaders to confront and ameliorate many of the challenges facing students.

A teacher’s calling is to educate students which involves knowing not only the content side of education but also the social-emotional side.  Getting to know students and developing positive relationships with them helps you appreciate the full complexity of their lives.  Heath does say in his book that getting proximate is not a guarantee of progress.  He says that it’s a start, not a finish.  Teachers are adept at figuring out what works and what doesn’t.  Each time you seek to understand your students, you are filling in another piece of the puzzle.  

How will you strive to build your understanding of your students? Imagine the possibilities when you, “. . . hunt for the levers that can move the world.”

Timely Topics

We are looking forward to virtually meeting with Central Office and Building Principals at the next Leadership Network on February 3 from 9-11 am. 

The outcomes are:

  • Identify a focus area (short-term goal) for the remainder of the school year,
  • Connect goal to upstream thinking and improvement cycles, and
  • Connect with like roles in the Solution Room.

Our next round of online learning begins March 17 and runs through May 12.  Please browse the professional learning calendar for courses that may interest you and/or address your district’s goals. To register, click Events Registration.

In Closing

“What we do to get proximate to those who are disfavored and excluded, what we do to change narratives, what we do to stay hopeful, what we do that is inconvenient and uncomfortable can sometimes be the most meaningful thing; it is how we honor what it means to have responsibility, to have opportunity, to have privilege.”

~ Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and NYU’s Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice, during his 13-minute speech on How To Change The World, talks into four things that we have to do if we want to change the world.  His first point is around getting and staying proximate to the people we serve.  Bryan shares,

  1. Get proximate and stay proximate to the people that you care about, the people you serve.  According to Stevenson, the world cannot be changed if people stay distanced from the problems trying to be fixed.  By being proximate, you see and hear things that you can’t see or hear from a distance.  There’s power in proximity. 
  2. Change the narratives underneath the issues.  For example, as it relates to the war on drugs, we used fear and anger to justify policies around people with addictions.  We call these people criminals and put them in prisons; instead, we could have said that there are people with healthcare issues and use our medical system to address them.  Stevenson believes that fear and anger are the essential ingredients around injustice.  We need to change the narrative of racial indifference.  
  3. Stay hopeful.  “Your hope is your superpower. . . . Hope is what will get you to stand up when other people say, ‘sit down’.  Hope is what will get you to speak when other people say, ‘be quiet’.” 
  4. “We have to be willing to do uncomfortable things.  We cannot change the world if we are unwilling to do the things that are inconvenient or uncomfortable.”  

How might your students benefit from these four mindsets and actions?  Once these four mindsets and actions are in place, what might that look like for your students, staff, and school community?

We can get closer to the inequity problem and achieve equity utilizing the Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP).  As districts create a strategy implementation plan (as outlined in the MICIP Process Guide), MICIP gives us the opportunity to consider and address questions around equity such as:

  • What systemic barriers might need to be addressed to achieve equity? What strategies will ensure equity in implementing a culturally responsive, tiered approach to instruction with sufficient and equitable resources and support to ensure high-quality learning experiences for all students?
  • What data will you use to monitor and evaluate strategies put in place to ensure equity in systems and in outcomes?

With this upstream thinking, we can use data to anticipate, prevent, and/or eliminate barriers.  How might you leverage the systems, routines, and/or people in your district to get closer to the problem?


Aguilar, E. (2020). Coaching for Equity: Conversations That Change Practice (1st ed., pp. 1-3). N.p.: Jossey-Bass.

Heath, D. Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen. London, Transworld Publishers, 2020.

Stevenson, B., (2017, November 22) How To Change The World [Video].  YouTube. 

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