Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath

Section 3 – Far Upstream

12. The Chicken Little Problem: Distant and Improbable Threats

  • We start with a review of the Y2K situation where many assets were mobilized so that computer systems would continue working when the clock hit midnight on January 1, 2000. This is an example of an upstream effort to solve a novel problem before it hits. Such problems that have never happened are, therefore, not urgent, and funding and cooperation can be difficult to come by.
  • The next example relates to the situation in New Orleans prior to hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2004 a large simulation involving many agencies was conducted in order to be better prepared in the event a category 5 hurricane hit New Orleans, which is below sea level and protected by a network of levies. The simulation was called Hurricane Pam. It came up with predictions that were remarkably close to what happened with the exception of the death rate and the percent of people who evacuated. They had in place a system to reroute all the Southbound lanes to the North for faster evacuation. It was used for Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and found to be wanting. This allowed for changes to the plan so that it worked much better when Hurricane Katrina hit.
  • Preparing for potential hacking comes next. When one organization sent fraudulent emails to every staff member they found that 29% clicked on what could have been a hack. After training the number went down to 5%, but this is one area where only perfection can protect access to vital and personal information. Dan also warns of the kind of innovation that can possibly doom our civilization. This would be something like ISIS getting nuclear weapons.

13. You, Upstream

  • Upstream thinking is not just for organizations, it’s for individuals. Where there is a recurring problem in your life, go upstream, and don’t let the problem’s longevity deter you from acting. Dan offers three suggestions. 1. Be impatient for action but patient for outcomes. Sometimes you solve a problem one step at a time. Dan cites an effort in North Caroline to ban smoking in schools that started one school at a time. 2. The macro starts with micro. First, you need to see the problem up close. With people, it’s good to start with one. 3. Favor scoreboards for pills. The pill here is a metaphor for whatever treatment you design to solve a problem. Dan suggests that you monitor the problem as you work at it (the scoreboard) and be willing to tweak your efforts as you go. Thanks for another great book Dan.

Dan Heath

  • Dan and his brother, Chip, have written four New York Times bestselling books: Made to Stick, Switch, Decisive, and The Power of Moments. He is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports entrepreneurs fighting for social good. He lives in Durham, North Caroline. His books have sold more than three million copies worldwide and have been translated into 33 languages. Three of his books have been summarized on this blog. Check out The Heath Brothers blog and send Dan a message at
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