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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 26, 2020

Creating systemic change and solving problems BEFORE they happen

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Creating systemic change and solving problems BEFORE they happen

By Angela Watson

My guest in this episode is Dan Heath, a New York Times bestselling author of five books, the most recent being “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.”

This book is a MUST read for anyone who’s curious about how to create systemic change or how to improve our daily lives through pro-active problem-solving.

Dan explains why we spend more time and resources fixing problems than preventing them. He gives concrete examples of people and organizations that have gone “upstream” to identify what’s creating havoc and fix things there BEFORE the problems come to them downstream.

We have an unprecedented opportunity right now for change in many areas: healthcare, the economy, the environment, and so on. Every part of our lives and society have been touched, and will be changed … and it’s up to us to envision a better “new normal.”

If you loved EP192 on reimagining schools and want more inspiration for how to move forward, I think you’ll find this episode fascinating.

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Sponsored by ViewSonic and Teacher’s Learning Center (TLC)

ANGELA: I’m so excited to have you on the show, Dan, to talk about your book “Upstream”, because it’s about changing systems, and that’s something that I’m really passionate about. I think it’s a topic that is more pertinent right now than ever. I think that a lot of the inherent flaws in our systems and society are being exposed in new ways right now. The way that I see it, we have an unprecedented opportunity to explore new ways of solving some of these problems.

So, I’m wondering if you can start by explaining the upstream analogy, and how it can help us approach problem solving more effectively.

DAN: Yes. This upstream terminology comes from a parable that’s pretty well known in public health, but not so widely outside it. It’s often attributed to a sociologist named Irving Zola.

The parable goes like this. You and a friend are having a picnic on the bank of a river. You’ve laid out your picnic blanket. You’re just about to enjoy your lunch when you hear a shout from the direction of the river. So, you both look back, and there’s a child in the water thrashing about, apparently drowning. You both instinctively dive in. You grab the child. You bring them to shore.

Just as your adrenaline is starting to subside a bit, you hear another shout. You look back, it’s a second child. So back in the water you go, you fish that child out. No sooner have you brought them to shore than you hear two more cries — now there are two kids in the water. So it goes, a revolving door of rescue, where you’re in and out of the water, and saving child after child, and it’s getting exhausting.

Right about that time, your friend starts swimming to shore, and steps out, as though to leave you alone. You say, “Hey! Where are you going? I need help. I can’t save all these kids by myself.” Your friend says, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the river.”

That, in a nutshell, is what this book is about. This tendency that we have, in our lives and in our work, to get trapped in a cycle of reaction, where we’re constantly putting out fires, and responding to emergencies, but we never get around to solving the problems that beget the emergencies. We never get around to tinkering with the systems that are causing those problems.

May I give you an example from healthcare. The healthcare system that we’ve learned to accept is one that is 98% downstream. I talked to a guy who was a former senior administrator of Medicare and Medicaid. He said, “We’ll pay $40,000 a year for the price of insulin, but we won’t pay $1,000 to prevent someone from ever getting diabetes.”

That’s the way our world works — we have such a profound bias for reacting to problems once they materialize, and we don’t have a corresponding priority on preventing those things.

Let’s talk a little bit about some of the issues in our school systems. One of the things that you mention in the book is the problem of tunneling. I think that’s a big part of why it’s difficult to create change in schools. We’re always working around problems at the moment because of the number of problems and the urgency of them, so we never really have a chance to move into systems thinking.

Can you talk to us about what tunneling is, and how we avoid it, so we’re not just propping up broken systems?

Yes. I think this is one of the most important parts of the story.

Let me start with a study from a woman named Anita Tucker who for her dissertation at Harvard studied nurses. She shadowed them for hundreds of hours, just following them around, trying to get a sense of what their days were like.

What she described was a life that was filled with novel problem-solving challenges. Sometimes, they were relatively trivial. A nurse figures out, she needs a towel for her patient, but her unit is out of towels, so she runs over to the next unit over, and nabs some of their towels, and brings them back.

Sometimes they were more serious things. She describes this one day when a nurse with the pseudonym Abby was trying to check out a mother who just had a baby from the hospital. She was ready to go home. Part of the check out procedure is to take off the security anklet, from the baby’s ankle.

On this day, the anklet was missing. So, they run around the unit, trying to find this anklet. Turns out, it’s in the baby’s bassinet. So, check. They can get this mother safely discharged.

Then weirdly, about three hours later, that same nurse had the same problem happen again, with a different baby. The anklet was missing. So, they did another frantic search. This time, they couldn’t find it. So, they had to figure out a different way to honor all the relevant security protocols, but still get this woman discharged with her new baby, and she did.

So, that’s what a nurse’s life is like — you’re constantly dealing with problems that pop up. The nurses had this ability to work around these problems seamlessly. They would just improvise a solution. They would figure out a way around. They didn’t need more resources. They didn’t need to go running to their boss every time something happened.

So, this portrait of nurses is an inspiring one. They’re resourceful, they’re scrappy, they’re persistent. Yet, if I reframe this story from a different direction, what we can realize, to our horror, is that this is a system that’s never improving.

It’s a system that’s never learning, because when these nurses work around problems again, and again, and again, what that necessarily means is that they’re never solving any of them. They’re never addressing any of the systems that begat those problems.

So, the nurse that went to the other unit and nabbed some towels, what she’s done is just set up that unit to run out of towels a few hours later. This was something that shocked Anita Tucker — the woman who’s doing the research — she basically never observed a nurse doing systems-level problem-solving.

Now, I want to be clear here. This is not to run down nurses for goodness sakes. I think Anita Tucker could have studied any profession in the world and found exactly the same thing. This is not a nurses’ thing. This is a humanity thing. I suspect a lot of teachers listening to this are nodding their heads, saying, “Yeah, that’s my life exactly.”

This phenomenon is something I want to call tunneling, which is a word I’m borrowing from a wonderful psychology book, called “Scarcity.” What the authors mean by that term tunneling is they say anytime we’re dealing with scarcity in life — a scarcity of money, a scarcity of time — what happens is we give up trying to systematically solve all the things in front of us.

Life becomes this juggling act, or to use the tunnel metaphor, picture yourself in a tunnel. Assuming you don’t want to go backward, there’s only one direction available. You’ve got to just get on your hands and knees, and scurry forward. If a problem pops up, your incentive is to get it behind you so you can move on.

That’s what these nurses were doing. They were tunneling. They run out of towels, they want to get past it. Why are they doing that? Because they have a scarcity of time to address all of the things that their patients need from them.

Think about how unnatural it would have been for them to say, “We’re missing this anklet. Let’s do some root cause analysis here. Let’s contact the manufacturer, to see if there’s any tightening protocols we haven’t asked about.” It’s absurd, right?

Yet, even as we empathize with the situation they’re in, we have to realize something — tunneling is a trap. As long as we stay in the tunnel, we’re basically dooming ourselves to repeating those same workarounds, or fishing those same kids out of the river again, and again, and again.

So, maybe in a way, the foremost challenge to upstream thinking is that organizations push us in the tunnel. Life pushes us in the tunnel. But if we’re ever going to solve problems, we have to escape it, and that’s a challenge.

The solutions to tunneling are not easy as a whole. It’s not easy to imagine a world where none of us are tunneling. But the good news is that even brief escapes from the tunnel can be really powerful.

In a lot of health systems, they’re using what they call a safety huddle, which is a meeting that happens every morning where people stand in a circle. It’s doctors and it’s nurses, and they talk about safety near misses from the day before.

Were there patients who almost got the wrong medication or the wrong dose? Were there procedures that almost went wrong? What can we learn from those things, and how can we fix the systems going forward?

A meeting like that might last 15 or 20 minutes,  and it would have been the perfect place for that nurse to say, “We ran into the same problem twice yesterday, this weird thing with the anklets. I know we’re putting them on tight enough, so I’m not sure what’s going on here.” That would have been the perfect opportunity to figure out, “Okay, how do we at least get in motion a systemic fix to this problem?”

Notice that this is just 20 minutes outside the tunnel. As soon as that meeting is over, chances are all those doctors and nurses are right back in the tunnel. But even so, it gives you the hope to see that we could solve some of these things systemically.

Let’s see if we can apply it a little bit to what’s happening in schools. What happens when teachers notice a structural problem— a practice that isn’t what’s best for kids, or that isn’t working well — and they find themselves tunneling? They know they need to be able to take that step back and think about systemic change. What are some principles they can use to help guide them, as they’re working toward that?

Great question. Let me take this in two parts.

First, I want to tell a story. It’s a little bit of a long story, but I think it’s critical. I think it’s one of the most important stories that I came across, and it happens to be from education so I think it’s right on point.

Then once I’ve told that story, I think we can kind of point back at it and see the principles we can extract for the things we’re worried about.

The story I’m talking about happens at Chicago Public Schools, CPS, one of the largest school districts in the country: 300,000+ students, a 6-billion-dollar budget, which is about the same as the whole city of Seattle. This is a big battleship we’re talking about.

Back in the 1998 era, the graduation rate at CPS was 52%. You had a coin flip’s chance of graduating as a teenager in CPS. So imagine, to your question, you’re a concerned teacher or administrator inside that system, and you just find it unbearable, intolerable that the failure rate is that high. What do you do?

Well, let me describe what happened at CPS. The first ray of hope that things could be different came when some academics, including a woman named Elaine Allensworth (who’s become really well known for this work) discovered that in the freshman year, they could predict with 80% accuracy which of those freshmen would go on to graduate and which would drop out.

Freshman year, four years ahead, 80% accuracy. They called this metric Freshmen On Track. There were two very simple components of it: The first was did the freshman complete five full-year course credits? And, did they not fail more than one core course? So, if you failed a core course like English or math, and if you failed just one, you could still be on track. The second was the critical threshold. Those two things together compiled this Freshman On Track metric that was very predictive.

In a nutshell, what they found was there’s something peculiar about the ninth grade year, this transition point into high school, that is critical for getting students to graduate.

All right, so that’s part one of the story. Part two is, what do you do with that information? So you know a freshman is off track? What now? That’s where they had to invent new ways of collaborating together.

The first thing that they observed was that some of their own policies were sabotaging their students unwittingly. One example was in the late ’90s and the early ’00s was the tough on discipline era — zero tolerance. I talked to one person who was active in this work and she said, “In those days, two-week suspensions were doled out like candy. A couple of kids would shove each other in the hallway, and boom! Both of them were out with a two-week suspension.”

What we now know from the research is if you take an at-risk kid and you kick him out of school for two weeks, guess what happens? They never catch up. They come back. They’re lost. They fail a class. They fail a couple of classes and boom! They’re off track.

So, do you think any of those assistant principals knew when they were doling out these suspensions that they might well be dooming them to drop out of high school? Certainly not! But you’ve got to look at systems carefully when you’re going to change them.

The most profound thing that they did, by way of changing students’ trajectories from off-track to on-track, they adopted this practice called Freshman Success Teams, where all the ninth grade faculty — biology, English, math, arts, and so forth — they would get together a couple of times a month.

The subject was specific students. They would get a list from the district of students who were most likely to be off-track based on their current grades and attendance. They would go name by name. They would say, “Okay, Michael? Was he in school every day last week? How are his math grades doing? Last time, they were suffering. We got in some extra tutoring, so now he’s at a C. Okay, great. Let’s talk about Keisha. Well, Keisha’s having this issue where she has to drop off her little sister at elementary school every morning, so she ends up coming to first period late almost every day. Oh, gosh. We’re not going to be able to fix that, so what if we switch her into PE first period? So at least if she suffers in first period, it’s for a class that’s an elective rather than a core course.”

That was the way change was made. It was made one name at a time — school by school, meeting by meeting, student by student — and these numbers started to budge. They started getting students to show up at school more. They started figuring out ways to boost grades, to give more support, and the Freshmen On Track numbers began to improve.

Then, just as those numbers had predicted, four years later, when it was time for those kids to graduate, they started graduating in higher and higher numbers. To the point where last year, or the year prior, the number was up to 78% graduation.


More than a 25-point increase in the graduation rate in one of the biggest school districts in the country.

I think anybody listening to this who’s been involved in education, can appreciate the sheer magnitude and improbability of that story. This is one of those situations where most people just assume a posture of learned helplessness.

It’s too big of a problem. The district is too big. There’s no way we can ever pull enough levers to move this. They moved it.

To circle back to your question now, I want to point out a couple of things that we can learn from the story that I think we can apply to almost anything that we want to solve at the upstream level.

First, to solve upstream challenges is often going to require a level of integration from us that we’re not used to. Organizations push us to specialize. We’re pushed into our silos — we’re a biology ninth-grade teacher. You don’t have any idea what’s going on in the math classroom or the English classroom. There was never any natural reason for you to be collaborating with those teachers.

But to help keep students on track, they realized, “We’ve all only got one piece of the puzzle here. We have the student for an hour a day. That’s all we see. But if we put together all of our hours, all of a sudden, we start to get a more holistic picture and we can help.”

So, part of the upstream story is we have to reach our arms out and connect with people who have other facets of the problem. Whether that be other teachers, whether it be administrators, whether it be parents, whether it be the business community — whatever it is, upstream work often requires integration.

Second, it helps to solve upstream challenges when we can get early warning of the problem. So, that luxury of knowing at the ninth grade year who was offtrack, that was so powerful. A student, as a senior, shows up in the counselor’s office and says, “I’m dropping out,” that’s the student drowning in the river. There’s very little you can do at that point. But as a freshman, you extend your runway. You extend the possibilities and potential for altering that trajectory.

Third, and I think, in some ways most important (I know this is going to resonate with my teacher friends) we have to learn to use data for learning, not for inspection. That’s some terminology I learned from a friend of mine, Joe McCannon, who’s a healthcare expert. What I mean is we’re used to, in our worlds, data being used to inspect us, to judge us like, “Well, we’re not hitting our standardized test numbers.” Or in the business world, it’s, ”
Well, we didn’t hit our sales numbers last quarter.” Data is being used to judge our performance. It’s almost like that’s so familiar we can’t conceptualize another way to use data.

But notice in the Chicago Public School story, what they were doing was using data to navigate. They were getting information on, “Michael, what was his attendance last week? What were his grades in math? What were his grades in English? What else do we know from Michael’s situation from the counselor? What’s going on at home?”

All of that was used to figure out, “What can we do to help Michael next week?” That’s a very powerful thing. As my friend, Joe McCannon says, people don’t need someone standing over their shoulder watching their performance for the sake of praising or chastising them. What they need is a goal that they care about, access to data that helps them assess whether they’re getting closer or further away from that goal, and they need to be left alone.

I think that’s a really powerful thing that a lot of districts need to learn from CPS is the power of data when it’s used for learning.

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That’s really good because a lot of schools are using data for inspection. They’re having these weekly meetings, these PLCs, or these data analysis meetings, where they’re supposed to be talking about these kinds of things. But it ends up being a meeting where we’re not using the data in the right way. I think we’re not integrating, as you were saying.

I think right now, with the pandemic, the whole way that we do school has been disrupted. So, the tunnel that we’ve been buried in has disappeared overnight. I think that’s exposing a lot of different flaws in the way that we do school.

So, the inequities that were there the whole time are being magnified in new ways. I see this as an important opportunity for us to go upstream, to do some systems thinking and reimagine the way that we teach, and the way that we do school, to address those inequities.

I know that you don’t bill yourself as an educational expert, but I know that you are an expert in solving big problems and systems thinking, and I know you’ve learned lots of lessons from lots of different industries. So I’m wondering if you see any upstream opportunities for teachers and educational systems just with the way things have been disrupted recently.

I actually want to hold up a mirror back to you, because I listened to one of your recent podcasts, and you made this brilliant case that this pandemic, which is something that nobody ever asked for, nobody would have wished for, and is terrible in so many ways, has this silver lining. Which is that it’s in essence, a once in a lifetime opportunity for experimentation.

You were challenging teachers. “We’ve always dreamed of a world where we weren’t constrained by teaching to the test, and these arbitrary measurements imposed on us from the outside. For this unfortunate reason, we have been given a license to try new things. This is our time. This is our time to try something new. This is our time to try that stuff that we’ve always wanted to try.”

I thought that was so powerful. It hadn’t dawned on me at all. I think the reason is that it would be very easy to slip from one tunnel to another. We went to the tunnel from our routines and school districts to the tunnel of, “Oh, my gosh! How do we get all this online technology working? It’s such a drag. How do I monitor my students?” We can just take off one tunnel and don another one. But what if we reframed that and said, “This is our chance to try all those things we wanted to try.”

So from an upstream perspective, I think the challenge that I would give everyone listening right now is, number one, honor Angela’s call to action. You should listen to her whole case because it’s very, very powerful.

Then the second thing is that I would direct your attention to is this question: How will you know you’re succeeding? Because I think a lot of us are skeptics that the way we’re measuring educational success right now are the right ways.

But when we all get back to normal, when we all come back into those school buildings, and the standardized tests are back in operation, you’re going to have to have something to persuade your colleagues that things should change.

So it’s one thing for it to feel good, as a relief, or as an opportunity to experiment. But just be aware, what’s the thing that you’re going to point to … to show what you did is something that should become permanent, rather than just a brief escape from the tunnel

So, be very thoughtful about that. What is it exactly that, in your world, you would hold up as the new badge of success? Is it participation? Is it engagement? Is it collaboration? Is it some measure of creativity?

You probably have better ideas than I do, but be thoughtful about what those measures of success are, and make sure to bake those into whatever experiments you’re running. Because it will be so much more powerful when you come back in the fall of 2020, and you can say, “Hey, here’s a thought. Yes, we made trade-off some marginal preparation for standardized test X by doing this, but notice how my engagement score shot up when I tried things in a different way.”

You’re going to be better armed to convince your colleagues, to convince your administrators that those experiments you’re conducting, shouldn’t be confined to this awful period of isolation.

I’m curious about what you would add to that. I’m building on your ideas here.

Yeah. I like where you’re going with that. You’re referencing Episode 192, which was called, “Schools Are Closed. This is Our Chance to Reimagine Them.” I think a lot of people are landing exactly where we’re talking about right now, which is, “This is a great vision. How do we make it a reality?”

I like this idea of thinking of this as a time to do action research. If you, as a teacher, know that your students don’t normally get enough time for this particular skill practice, or if their socio-emotional well-being isn’t generally centered, but you’re doing something different right now for that, notice how well that’s working. Document what you’re doing. Document the results. Then use that to make a case in the fall that, “Look, this should be a bigger priority. Look at the results that we got, maybe in ways that aren’t measured on a standardized test, but we know are really important for kids.”

Exactly right. I just find that so convincing, that the one thing we could emerge from in this terrible period with is a set of new ideas that we’ve begun to test, and that we have begun to come up with counter-proposals to the system, in terms of how we judge whether students are growing, and how students are learning. I think that’s a compelling vision.

These counterproposals — I like that term — if we’re talking about systemic change, is that something where teachers should be working together and making the case to school leaders? Do you have any thoughts about how best to do that when we talk about changing structures and systems?

Absolutely. It goes back to that point about CPS, that to solve really thorny problems means we’ve got to reach our arms out.

In the book, I call this “surrounding the problem.” That in so many cases, as with the drop out rate, there’s no one owner of that. That’s something that’s peculiar about upstream challenges. If you ask, “Whose job is it to put out a fire in a house that’s on fire?” It’s the fire department’s job. It’s easy. They’re going to come out and put out the flames.

If you ask, “Whose job is it to prevent houses from catching on fire?” That’s a very complicated question. You’ve got lots of constituents, there. You’ve got the fire department plays a role. The homeowner plays a role. Whoever writes the building codes plays a role. The construction foreman plays a role, and on, and on, and on.

One consequence of having real distributed ownership of a problem is that often, it can just drop. In organizations, we have this expertise at forcing people to specialize, because a lot of times, specialization creates really easy owners of different things. Whose job is it to teach mitosis? Well, it’s the ninth grade biology teacher’s. Period. But what we miss is some of the more interesting, profound, and important problems are ones that span lots of different owners.

So in a situation like this, this could be the ideal opportunity to reach out, certainly across all the faculty in your discipline, I think. But also potentially reaching out across different disciplines, across different departments, when you’re talking about goals that are bigger than just preparation for one particular content area.

So, be mindful of that CPS example, that they got traction on a big problem by first surrounding it with the right players.

So, that might mean finding other teachers who are interested in doing this kind of work, who share the vision, and who are interested in looking at ways to start creating change from a grassroots level.

Yes, certainly.

Not to mention the effects that will have on your own motivation. It’s fun to be part of a team that’s trying to do something new and unprecedented. You have each other to draw on. You can share successes. You can comfort each other in failures.

So, your own motivation is an important part of this. To the extent you can de-isolate yourself, I think it makes you more likely to succeed.

Before we close out, I want to zoom out a little bit bigger, and just talk about in general, some of the issues that we’re facing right now in the U.S. with the pandemic. I think there can definitely be an argument made that we just didn’t have enough upstream solutions in place. It was seen as too costly.

You talk a lot in the book about how we often don’t want to pay for prevention. It’s hard to measure prevention, because if preventative measures are successful, then it looks like we overreacted, and it looks like we didn’t need to take such drastic steps to begin with.

So, I’m wondering if you have thoughts on the kinds of upstream solutions that we need to be looking at right now, to get things back on track.

You’re so right, that one of the reasons we’re in the spot that we’re in is I remember talking to a public health expert, named Julie Pavlin. She had this great quote. “In public health, if you do your job, they cut your budget because no one is getting sick.”

That pretty much says it all, right? How do you prove when things do not happen? All of these years, when we haven’t been hit by a pandemic as hard as we’re being hit right now by the coronavirus, my guess is it’s because of expertise in public health, but we took it for granted. No one was made a hero from protecting us all those years.

What Julie Pavlin said that rings so unfortunately true is that events like this always run in a cycle of crisis and neglect. Something gets inflamed, like the Ebola outbreak in the Obama administration for about a month, and all the worlds’ governments were aligned, and we had massive interventions.

Then, as soon as it’s out of the news, it’s like, “Poof! It’s gone from our collective consciousness,” at exactly the time when we should be building up those local health systems in places like West Africa, to make sure that if and when this ever breaks out again, they’re better armed and prepared for it.

What’s most frustrating about this coronavirus outbreak to me is that there are many problems in the world that are difficult or impossible to foresee, and we just have to deal with them. This was not one of those.

This one was entirely foreseeable. Indeed, it was foreseen by many, many people for decades. Not only years, decades, that we have foreseen the threat of a serious pandemic. In fact, even the specific strain of the virus that we’re talking about was largely foreseeable. There were so many unforced errors here.

The Global Health Security Team being disbanded in the White House, and the long delays, both in China and in the U.S., at acknowledging how bad the problem was, and not moving fast enough to get testing going.

Then there are more subtle things, too, that you realize when you really start poking at systems. There was a great column in the New York Times, by Farhad Manjoo. He was addressing the lack of masks and protective equipment that we’ve been reading about.

One reason that’s happened is because that in many businesses, including health systems, they’ve started to go to what’s called “just in time inventory.” So, at Toyota, when they’re making a car, they want the windshield wipers to show up just in time to be placed on the vehicle. Not literally, they have some inventory.

But the point is that there’s not 10,000 windshield wipers in inventory because that would be a waste. It would be a waste of space. It would be a waste of resources. You want today’s vehicles’ windshield wipers to be showing up the night prior, that kind of thing.

That’s efficient. We prize efficiency. But the effect of that is, when you have the same philosophy about masks in the health system, what you say is, “I want next month’s supply of masks to show up today, and not a day before.” But that creates efficiency at the expense of resilience.

So, right now, we’ve created a super-efficient system that has completely failed to prepare us for a time when we might need extra supplies. I could go on, and on, and on about the missed opportunities and the problems.

Here’s the silver lining. Your silver lining in schools was this is a chance for experimentation that rarely comes along. I think the silver lining for global health is that this is forced practice for us.

Because the terrifying news is, as bad as this is, it could be a lot worse. This could be a deadlier virus. It could be a more contagious virus. We’ve seen viruses in the past that were both. This was not the worst draw that we could have drawn. When the big one comes, the kinds of skills that we’re being forced to develop right now are going to be so important.

I remember a conversation I had with a guy named Jeff Freeman, who works at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. He said, “The error in thinking about emergencies is that we just have a plan that’s on a shelf somewhere. When that thing happens, we pull down the plan and execute it perfectly.” He’s like, “It doesn’t work that way.” He said, “The disciplines, and the skills, and the systems that you need in an emergency have to be given a day job,” which I thought was so profound.

What he means is, there are things that we know we’re going to have to be good at, almost regardless of what the emergency is. A great example is the ability to work remotely. Organizations across the world are being forced to figure out, “How do we work together when we all have to be in our homes?”

You could imagine 100 different emergencies, ranging from another virus to terrorism, where we’re going to have to be good at that. We have to give those technologies a day job.

In schools, we’re figuring out, how do you continue to move students along online? That’s a day job. Restaurants figuring out how do we switch from serving customers in our dining room, to delivering, or offering quick take out? Those are day jobs that need practice.

So, that’s the silver lining that I’m trying to cling to is it would have been so much wiser for us to practice when we didn’t have to practice. But there is some value, still, in being compelled to practice, because we know this will not be the time we face a situation like this again.

I want to go back to the quote that you gave about how, if you do your job well, nothing bad happens. Was that what it was?

Yes. Where is that quote? “In public health, if you do your job, they cut your budget because no one is getting sick.”

Yes. You know what else that reminded me of is policing. You do talk about that a little bit in the book, as well. It’s like if we focus our dollars there in preventing crime, and no crime happens, then they cut the budget. So, it’s easier to measure the success of our police force according to how many arrests they make.

I’d like to hear you talk a little bit about that because I know criminal justice reform is something that you and I both are really passionate about. I know you’ve done a lot of research into what going upstream looks like, in terms of policing. Can you speak to that, just a little bit?

I think it was best said by a deputy chief of police for a major Canadian city I met about a decade ago. He was talking about the tension between what’s visible and what’s important. He gave me this thought experiment.

He said, “Imagine two police officers. One of them goes downtown in the morning to this intersection that gets really busy in the morning commute, and there’s a lot of wrecks there. People get hurt. She just installs herself visibly in the intersection, and her presence makes drivers more careful, more cautious. Because she was there, accidents don’t happen.”

“Then contrast her with a different officer that goes to a different part of downtown, where there’s a prohibited right turn signal. So, she hides around the corner. When drivers make that illegal right turn, she nabs them and gives them a ticket.”

And he said, “Which of these officers is doing more to protect the public safety?” He said, “Indisputably, it’s the first one. She’s preventing people from being hurt, from being killed.” But he said, “If you really ask which of these officers will get praised, which will get promoted, it’s going to be the second one, because she has this stack of tickets that she brings back that provides visible evidence of her success.”

“Meanwhile, that first officer, how does she prove she did anything? How do you prove that something did not happen?”

I think that’s so resonant when it comes to the education system. How do you prove when a really thoughtful coach was such an effective mentor that the student did not have a brush with the law? How do you attribute something to a teacher that a student did not have a brush with insecurity, or a lack of confidence, or something more extreme like dropping out of school?

The case may be we’ll never know. Certainly, at an individual level, the horrible thing is we’ll never know exactly which students were helped, and who exactly deserves the credit for helping them. It’s like our best answer is data.

So, back to the police story. If we can measure data really carefully in that one intersection that’s really chaotic, maybe we can establish there was a difference in the number of collisions before we installed a police officer there to after.

If that difference is compelling enough, then we can attribute it to our own work. But even so, it’s ultimately just numbers moving on a page somewhere. It lacks drama. It lacks the concreteness of the downstream action.

When you fish a drowning kid out of the river, there’s an instant jolt of heroism that you get. You’re the hero. That was the victim.

When you make drowning marginally less probable, as the YMCA has done by the way, with a lot of things like moving lifeguard chairs closer to the pool, or improving scanning techniques that lifeguards use to oversee the pool, and banning cell phone use, putting people on rotations.

All of these boring, process level things that have been proven to reduce the number of drowning deaths. Those people are heroes, but they’re never treated like heroes, because there was no moment of heroics. In fact, what makes them heroes to me is that they prevented the need for heroics.

So, part of my agenda in writing this book, honestly, is to try to cultivate a different sense of heroism — can we get out of the business of defining heroes as the people who rush in to save the day? Might we have a new breed of heroes that are the people who keep the day from needing to be saved?

Oh, that’s so powerful. I love that. That’s my vision, too. I love that you’ve articulated this so well for teachers.

I hope everybody listening to this becomes one of those invisible heroes.

What’s something that you wish every teacher understood about systems thinking and creating change?

I’ll tell you. I have some guilt and qualms that so many of the things we’ve been talking about in this episode are big. They’re systemic. The CPS story took 15 years to unfold. I don’t want this to feel like a burden on your shoulders, that, “Oh, gosh. It’s really hard to do this work.”

It can be hard, and it can take a long time, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that there are easier ways to do this upstream thinking, too, that have a more immediate payoff, even in our own lives.

I was talking to a guy named Rich Marisa. He and his wife — I guess all couples have these little things that they bicker about — but their thing was the hallway light. So, Rich went in and out of the house a lot. He would turn on the hallway light to go outside. Often, he was taking the dog out or something, and he’d turn on the light. He’d come back and he’d forget to turn it off. That was what bugged his wife, so that became their little thing that they bickered about. It was an irritant in their relationship.

So, one day, Rich realizes, “I can make this go away.” He drives to Home Depot. He gets a $15 piece of equipment called a light switch timer. He takes off the faceplate, puts on the light switch timer. Now he can just press a button. There are buttons for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. You press the button to get five minutes of light. He goes outside, he comes back in, the light turns itself off, and they never have to have that argument again, for the rest of their marriage.

I have come across situations like that again and again, where people, where couples, where teams have just learned to endure, that they’ve actually adapted to a problem that they never need to face again.

One of the funniest ones and silliest ones was this woman told me she had her desk moved at work. Her desk happened to be right near the door to a stairwell. A lot of times, those doors are really heavily insulated. It’s a big metal door, and it was very squeaky.

So, when people went in and out, it bugged everyone. She just found it intolerable, so the next day, she brought some WD40 from home. She oiled up the hinges on the door, and it was silent. She said her colleagues just flipped out. They couldn’t believe that she had solved this squeak!

I think, to me, that’s a metaphor for the harm of our own adaptability. That we’re so good as people at adapting to situations, that we can over-adapt, that we can stop questioning, “This problem that I’m seeing again and again, what if I didn’t adapt to it? What if I fixed it?”

So that’s a challenge I would give to your listeners: Target some of those irritants in your life; whether it’s something with your spouse, or something personal, or something at work. Stop tolerating it, and go upstream.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Another out of the park episode, Angela! Going to run to my computer and order Upstream! He was such a well spoken and powerful speaker. Thank you!!!!

  2. Amazing! I work with so many teachers that just “tolerate” the most ridiculous things! And when I recommend what seems to be obvious, they think it’s genius! 18 years and no one thought of this?!

    1. I have noticed this same phenomenon! Dan’s book really helped me understand why. I am naturally a systems thinker, so I intuitively want to head upstream to solve problems. Most people don’t think like that, though, and because of “tunneling” and other factors he’s spelled out, they get stuck triaging all the time. Humans really do find ways to adapt to just about anything, and it’s easy to fall into that trap of tolerating problems that could be fixed.

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