Are you looking Upstream?

What’s more effective – downstream reactions or upstream proactive solutions? Where do you focus your efforts?

Think back to a time when your business was running normally – these days that might be a couple of months ago, but give it a shot. Here’s the question:

When things were more routine, were you spending more of your time reacting to things, fighting fires, solving problems – or were you spending more time identifying and solving potential future issues?

If you’re like most of us, you fall into the reactive camp – and according to author Dan Heath in his latest book Upstream, there are some good reasons for that. In a perfect world, we would all agree that it makes more sense to address as many problems as we can before they actually happen – so why don’t we do more of that? It turns out there are actually 4 reasons for this.

Why are we Reactive rather than Proactive?

Problem Blindness – there are some things that we react to that we don’t see as problem, or that it’s not something that can be solved. But breakthroughs in healthcare, education, technology and other areas happen all the time. Once a problem is acknowledged it can often be fixed with new thinking.

A Lack of OwnershipYour system is perfectly designed to generate the results you’re getting. If you have a lot of customer service issues, it’s because your overall system is set up in such a way to cause that. A likely problem is that there isn’t a single person or area that owns the resolution of the problem because they’re focused on something else. In the example of customer service issues, maybe the focus from different teams is on profitability, time to turn things around, delivery speed… could be lots of things, but it’s likely that no one owns minimizing customer impacts.

Tunneling – Most of the time it feels like the only way forward is through. When things are busy, which they always are, you and your team are going to do whatever needs to be done to solve the immediate problem. Leaving you no time or space to get to the root cause.

Playing the Hero is more rewarding – This isn’t called out explicitly in the book, but in my experience another reason we tend to react is because there’s a tangible, obvious benefit to playing the Hero. When Jim works all weekend to get that report done, we show our appreciation for his effort and his sacrifice. What we generally don’t do is recognize that Jim, with just a little planning and insight a couple of weeks earlier, wouldn’t have needed to go to those lengths to get the report done. But that doesn’t get noticed or celebrated – being a hero does.

How to be more proactive?

Is it really worth the effort to be more proactive? A great example from the book is a situation that the online travel company Expedia had back in 2012. Overall the company was doing very well but 58% of their customers that used their system would end up calling customer support – keep in mind this is an ONLINE booking service. The number one reason they were calling was to get a copy of their itinerary. That problem alone resulted in an extra 20 Million calls to their call centers. That’s a lot of time and money.

Once Expedia recognized this as a problem that could be solved (problem blindness) and pulled together a special team to solve it (ownership), they were able to identify some quick and easy system and process changes to eliminate almost 100% of those calls. 20 Million calls their call center no longer had to deal with… a savings of almost $100 Million…!

The reasons we tend to be reactive are good ones, but it is possible to overcome them. However, it’s not likely to happen without some effort. Here are 3 things you can start doing that will help.

Build in some slack – one of the biggest challenges we all face is a lack of time (and resources) to think ahead. If your day (or your team’s day) is 100% full of doing the work and reacting, then you’re never going to identify and solve for the root cause. Getting out of the day to day work, even if it’s only for a couple of hours once a month, can help you start solving problems BEFORE they happen – which has a huge payoff down the road.

Change your Focus – Remember, your current system is perfectly delivering on the results that you’re getting. So if you’re seeing recurring problems, it’s because the system is creating them. By changing your focus you can start changing your system. Start by identifying your top 2 or 3 issues that happen repeatedly and pick one of those as a starting point to solve.

Rally the team – Nothing gets solved without taking action and it’s almost guaranteed that the issue you’ve identified will cross multiple areas in your business. Get the team to work together on your new focus, find a way to measure success on solving the problem and then find a way to incent everyone for that solution. Author Brad Hams in his book Ownership Thinking calls this a Rapid Improvement Plan and suggests pulling a team together every 90 days to solve a problem or improve a key metric – and to have some fun with it.

What problems do you see coming up in your business on a regular basis? What are some of the things you do every week (or every day) that take time and effort but might not need to be done? When’s the last time you purposely looked for those kinds of issues and did anything about it?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this – if you’re looking for a real world example, we don’t need to look any farther than the current response to the Covid-19 Pandemic. There was plenty of warning that something like this was going to happen and although it’s unlikely we could have prevented it from happening, with some foresight we certainly could have been much more prepared and in much better shape than we are. Hopefully it’s something we’ll collectively learn from.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach

1 thought on “Are you looking Upstream?”

  1. michael naumann says:

    Love the idea of building in slack into a system.

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