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Wall Street Journal Bestseller
New York Times bestselling author Dan Heath explores how to prevent problems before they happen, drawing on insights from hundreds of interviews with unconventional problem solvers.
So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many crimes, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?
Upstream probes the psychological forces that push us downstream—including “problem blindness,” which can leave us oblivious to serious problems in our midst. And Heath introduces us to the thinkers who have overcome these obstacles and scored massive victories by switching to an upstream mindset. One online travel website prevented twenty million customer service calls every year by making some simple tweaks to its booking system. A major urban school district cut its dropout rate in half after it figured out that it could predict which students would drop out—as early as the ninth grade. A European nation almost eliminated teenage alcohol and drug abuse by deliberately changing the nation’s culture. And one EMS system accelerated the emergency-response time of its ambulances by using data to predict where 911 calls would emerge—and forward-deploying its ambulances to stand by in those areas.
Upstream delivers practical solutions for preventing problems rather than reacting to them. How many problems in our lives and in society are we tolerating simply because we’ve forgotten that we can fix them?
Heath (The Power of Moments, coauthor), a senior fellow at Duke's CASE Knowledge Center, urges a preventive, rather than reactive, problem-solving approach in his eloquent manifesto. With the frenetic pace of modern life, Heath observes, it's easy to become accustomed to putting out fires instead of looking for the spark that's igniting them. His examples of proactive, "upstream" thinking include a domestic violence prevention task force which, by bringing together police officers, victims' advocates, health-care workers, and others, has eliminated intimate partner-perpetrated murders in the Massachusetts communities it has served for 14 years running. His takeaways include the need to "unite the right people" (as the domestic violence task force demonstrates), pay attention to early warnings, and find the right point of "leverage" to solve a problem. To illustrate this last principle, Heath cites a mentoring program which, by teaching young men peaceful conflict resolution skills, drastically reduced arrests and violent crimes in a Chicago neighborhood. He finishes by addressing larger-scale problems, using as an example a hurricane preparation exercise conducted in New Orleans just 13 months before Katrina that saved many thousands of additional people from dying. This is a pragmatic guide for those seeking big changes on either an individual or organizational level.