Upstream Thinking . . . You, Upstream

This year’s Blueprint Bulletin theme is around Upstream Thinking for Systems Improvement.  Dan Heath helps us think about downstream and upstream actions.  Throughout this series, connections have been made to systems improvement in the following Blueprint Bulletin editions:

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second-best time is now.” 

~ Chinese Proverb

Throughout this Blueprint Bulletin series, we have focused on planning, prevention, and being intentional with upstream actions.  Having the proverbial crystal ball would definitely help as you put the systems and routines in place to support student growth and achievement.  

The final chapter of Heath’s book is titled You, Upstream.  What might you predict is the main message in this chapter?  If you’re thinking, “how can I, personally and professionally, move upstream?  What might I have control over?  And, how might I move mountains?”, you are absolutely right!  This edition helps you to personalize your understanding of upstream actions and behaviors.  

Heath states, “Upstream thinking is not just for organizations, it’s for individuals.  Where there’s a recurring problem in your life, go upstream.  And don’t let the problem’s longevity deter you from acting.  As an old proverb goes, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’”  Even though a problem has existed, it’s never too late to “start”.  Take action now.  It’s your moral imperative.  In what areas of your life do you wish you’d acted years ago? And, in the spirit of the proverb, how might you take action today

From day-to-day decisions to long-term planning, how might you be intentional about being an upstream educator?  The Blueprint Connections, Leader’s Corner, and Teacher’s Corner sections will confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.

Blueprint Connections

“And that’s how upstream victories are won.  An inch at a time, and then a yard, and then a mile, and eventually you find yourself at the finish line:  Systems change.  Be impatient for action and patient for outcomes.”

~ Dan Heath

The above quote refers to systems change.  Systems are used as a way of leveraging strengths to improve over time.  Systems thinking allows you to learn from mistakes and focus on overall improvement.  In other words, systems are a way of engaging in continuous improvement over time.  The Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP), defines a system as “a series of interdependent and aligned processes and people working together toward a common goal to bring desired results.”  MICIP’s definition references desired results. In Heath’s quote above, he states, Be impatient for action and patient for outcomes . . . or, desired results.  Are these connections coincidental?  Nope.  

Systems change does not happen overnight, and with that being said, we need to start.  “Change won’t come without action.  At the same time, it can take a while for action to bear fruit” (Heath, 2020, p. 234). Systems change begins with the first step. As Heath’s quote above states, “An inch at a time, and then a yard, and then a mile, and eventually you find yourself at the finish line:  Systems change” (Heath, 2020, p. 235). How long are we willing to wait while actively pursuing this change?  Perseverance and resilience come to mind.  How might we maintain a sense of urgency without letting frustration prevail?  

Knowing that the Blueprint framework is a systems-based approach to continuous improvement, how might this framework support you to be an upstream thinker?

The Leader’s and Teacher’s Corner sections will support you with deeper thinking around You, Upstream.

Leader’s Corner

“Don’t obsess about formulating the perfect solution before you begin your work; instead, take ownership of the underlying problem and start slogging forward.”  

~ Dan Heath

The above quote reminds me of Nike’s motto, ‘Just Do It’.  Let’s take it a few steps further.  How about, ‘Just do it, then improve it, and then do it again.’  Once again, connections to Improvement Cycles and the Michigan Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP) can be made.  Heath’s reference of what he calls the Scoreboard Model is similar in purpose to an improvement cycle-like model.  He reminds readers that data should be used for learning, not used for inspection.  “The people in the field who are doing the hard work should receive timely, useful data that allows them to learn and adapt.  I’m using a scoreboard as a metaphor for this continuous flow of data, which provides a way to judge in real time whether you’re succeeding or failing”  (Heath, 2020, p. 238).  The Scoreboard Model metaphor makes perfect sense.  Chicago Public Schools used the scoreboard model to increase the graduation rate by 25 percentage points.  Teams continually monitored and asked, ‘how can we make progress this week?’  What are some ways you can take action to monitor progress of your team’s goals?

Teams can accomplish amazing things when students and data are the focus.  Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman, in their book Got Data? Now What?, lift seven qualities and actions of high-performing groups:

  1. Maintain a clear focus
  2. Embrace a spirit of inquiry
  3. Put data at the center
  4. Honor commitments to learners and learning
  5. Cultivate relational trust
  6. Seek equity
  7. Assume collective responsibility

“These qualities are lenses through which groups and individual group members can view their interactions to gain perspective on the choices that they are making and the skills they are applying as they work together.  Group development also requires personal development.  When and how group members choose to participate emerges from individual and collective awareness and commitment to developing these attributes” (Lipton & Welman, 2012, p. 11).  As you reflect on those seven actions, you can make many connections to collective efficacy and You, Upstream.  Collective efficacy is, “the belief that, through collective actions, educators can influence student outcomes and improve student learning” (Donohoo, 2016, back cover).  You, Upstream, is focusing on how you, as an individual, can change the organization that you work for.  When considering the seven actions of high-performing groups, reflect upon the following upstream questions:

  1. Maintain a clear focus – Am I clear about our purpose?
  2. Embrace a spirit of inquiry – What might I be avoiding or leaving out?
  3. Put data at the center – What other sources might add to our thinking?
  4. Honor commitments to learners and learning – What new goals might I set for my own learning?
  5. Cultivate relational trust – Am I following through on my commitments?
  6. Seek equity – Am I able to set my own preference and judgments aside to consider others’ ideas?
  7. Assume collective responsibility – In what ways are the connections and linkages between my work and my colleagues’ work making a difference for students?

How might those reflection questions support you in being an upstream leader while building collective efficacy within your district?  Your school?  Your team?  What might it look like, sound like, and feel like when the entire district is individually and collectively putting the systems in place focusing on prevention and using improvement cycles/scoreboard models to monitor continuous improvement?  What might you want to be mindful of within yourself to support your growth as an upstream leader?  How might those questions support you as you reflect on 2020-21 as well as planning and launching 2021-2022?

Teacher’s Corner

“You can’t help a thousand people, or a million, until you understand how to help one. . . . Macro starts with micro.”

~ Dan Heath

Heath’s quote reminds me of the importance of starting with ourselves. How can we possibly engage in collective and collegial practices unless we are prepared to first do the necessary work of opening ourselves up to learning and growing as educators?  

Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, published a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. This book documents over thirty years of research into how people succeed and details Dweck’s theory on two mindsets she discovered in her subjects. She named these mindsets the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset.”

A fixed mindset is a belief that we’re born with a fixed amount of intelligence and ability. People operating with a fixed mindset are prone to avoiding challenges and failures. A growth mindset is a belief that with practice, perseverance, and effort, people have limitless potential to learn and grow. People operating with a growth mindset embrace tackling challenges and are unconcerned with making mistakes or being embarrassed, focusing instead on the process of growth.  

Two key characteristics indicate which direction our mindset tends to lean: our beliefs and our focus. With a fixed mindset, we tend to believe that we are born with set skills and talents, that we can’t learn and grow, and that our focus is on our performance and outcomes and not wanting to look bad. With a growth mindset, we believe that skills are built; we can learn and grow, and our focus is on the process of getting better rather than the outcome. 

You possess both fixed and growth mindsets when it comes to different aspects of your life. How you choose to see the world at any given moment can make an enormous difference in your success. Dweck says, “. . .  As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another–how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road“ (2006, p. 63).

Beliefs lead to thoughts, or an internal narrative, which lead to action. What you believe influences what you think and what you think influences your actions. Your actions, what you say and do, can have a tremendous impact on others in your collaborative teams and in your classroom.  A team member with a growth mindset can positively influence collaborative team interactions. A growth mindset helps to enhance collaborative relationships and foster a growth-oriented team culture. A growth mindset changes the way you relate to the people around you, and the mindset is infectious.

You need to do things differently, see how it goes, talk about it, adjust what you are doing, and try it again. We are all on a path of continuous improvement.

As you continue this journey to effective and meaningful collaboration with your colleagues, remember that this is a process that begins with addressing your beliefs. Once you have determined whether your beliefs are reflective of a growth or fixed mindset, you will be much more likely and able to change your actions, which will lead to incredible growth, not only in you but in your students as well.  As Heath says, “You can’t help a thousand people, or a million, until you understand how to help one.” In order to be an upstream teacher, what might you need to start with in order to foster a growth mindset?  What steps can you take to help yourself so that you are better prepared to help others?

Timely Topics

2021 Summer Virtual Institute Events

Virtual Leadership Team Institute
Leveraging Blueprint Systems to Move Upstream

We invite you to join us for a one-day virtual District Leadership Team Institute where you will have the opportunity to reflect on which district systems and building routines worked well and what new practices might be carried forward.  Your district leadership team will then apply that information to improve systems using upstream thinking.  As a culmination of our year-long work based on the book Upstream:  The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, we are thrilled to have the author Dan Heath join us for a closing endnote address.  Dan will deliver a critical message for school leaders seeking to shift their energies upstream.

  • Date: June 15, 2021
  • Time: 8:45 am – 3:30 pm
  • Intended Audience: District Leadership Teams
  • SCECHs: Up to 5.5 hours can be earned
  • Registration Link – Free copy of the Upstream book (mailed to you) included with your registration!
  • Watch this VIDEO to learn more about the Virtual District Leadership Team Institute!
Virtual Blueprint Institute VII
Engaging and Refining Our Systems to Support Continuous Improvement

This Institute will be two days of learning and discussion around how we refine the systems in our districts, schools, and classrooms.  This year we welcome two keynote speakers to our virtual institute.  On August 4, Manny Scott will share real, life-changing lessons and support participants in learning to transform our schools into safe, positive environments where adults are equipped to REACH all students. On August 5, Jenni Donohoo will provide the foundation for understanding the source of collective efficacy for teachers and school leaders as well as the significant impact collective efficacy has on student achievement.  Daily networking opportunities will allow for discussion around relevant topics and district highlights. Our 90-minute learning sessions will be application-focused providing examples, tools, and/or protocols that will support all efforts toward continuous improvement.

  • Dates:  August 4-5, 2021,
  • Time: 9 am – 3 pm
  • Intended Audience:  Teams made up of district, building, and teacher leaders
  • SCECHs:  Up to 10 hours can be earned
  • Registration Link
  • Watch this VIDEO to learn more about the 2-day Virtual Blueprint Institute!

We currently offer on-demand learning courses:  Educational Improvement Through Systems and Changing Minds to Address Poverty in the Classroom. Anyone can access quality content, on their schedule, anytime of the day or night. On-demand learning offers flexibility, convenience, and courses that are easily accessible. No login required. 

Our next round of online learning begins June 16 and runs through August 11.  Please browse the professional learning calendar for courses that may interest you and/or address your district’s goals. To register, click Events Registration.


“Try and leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate, you have not wasted your time but have done your best.”

~ Robert Baden-Powell

Sally Herndon, worked for years in North Carolina (NC) for an anti-smoking initiative called Project ASSIST. Her goal was, “ . . . to improve the public’s health by reducing smoking. That’s classic upstream work.  But how could they prevail against one of the world’s most powerful lobbies — on its home soil in North Carolina?  It was clear they weren’t going to deliver a knockout blow.  Herndon knew that their only hope was to chip away at the problem” (Heath, 2020, pp. 234-235). Herndon is an upstream thinker.  She “helped build support for the 2010 law that makes all NC restaurants and bars smoke free and worked with state and local partners to successfully implement the new law. Her ongoing work involves working with state, regional, and local partners to 1) reduce tobacco use by young people; 2) eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke; 3) help all tobacco users who want to quit; and 4) eliminate tobacco-attributable health disparities” (Daniel, 2020, para. 2).  

Please spend a few moments reading Why True Grit Matters in the Face of Adversity where Dan Heath and his brother, Chip Heath, explain why some of the biggest victories are won an inch at a time.  They also elaborate on Herndon’s success story where in her “. . . 20-year campaign in North Carolina, the adult smoking rate had dropped by almost 25%, and millions of people have been spared the effects of secondhand smoke (Heath & Heath, 2011, para. 5). 

As you review, reflect on how YOU can move upstream. How might YOU leave this world a little better than you found it?

Cover Copy (2016).  Collective Efficacy How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning, by Jenni Donohoo. Corwin Press.

Daniel, L. (2020, December 22). Meet the TTS Faculty: Sally Herndon. In DUKE UNC: Tobacco Treatment Specialist Training Program. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Incorporated.

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

Heath, D., & Heath, C. (2011, February 16). Why True Grit Matters in the Face of Adversity. In Fast Company. Retrieved from

Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (2012). Got Data? Now What? (pp. 10-17). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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