Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

Reviewed on , book by Dan Heath

I devour Heath books like candy, this one was good, but not as good as Decisive and Power of Moments.

There’s the old saying that ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’ That’s what this book’s about. We all recognize the value of being proactive, but the issues with solving problems upstreams are manifold: It’s exceedingly hard to prove causation. It’s easy to know how many people a hospital saves, but less so how many lives a public health campaign saves. We all know which one is better funded. We all have a hunch where the return-on-investment is significantly higher. It’s much more efficient in the long-term to try to keep people in high school, than to repair the damage that may have resulted in later.

One of my favourite quotes from the book: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” Reading the book and getting this sentence hammered in again and again was almost worth it in itself.

All systems need to be be tuned to work a little further upstream. By default, they tend to drift downstream. This even though it’s hard to quantify sometimes. That all work has to be measured can be troublesome, because it favours initiatives that are easy to measure on short time-scales (downstream) over those that may work much more cost-effectively on a longer time-scale (upstream).

We are so bad at this it’s tragic. Even through C19 most countries reacted slowly. Unfortunately, this has given me less, rather than more, hope for minimizing climate change.