The Value of Thinking Upstream

Sep 22, 2020  |  By Chris McCracken  |  

Most business leaders think of themselves as problem solvers. Clients, customers, and colleagues come to us with problems or business needs and we deliver solutions. Too often though, we only solve the symptoms of the problem rather than thinking upstream to address the origins of the problem itself.

What Does It Mean to Think Upstream?

Thinking upstream means looking beyond the negative effects the current problem is causing to why the problem is happening in the first place. This term is attributed to a dark and odd parable about a group idling by a river when they see an unattended baby float by. They immediately rescue the baby from the river, only to see more and more babies coming toward them. Instead of just focusing on saving the children downstream, the group sends someone to look upstream to uncover who is putting the babies into the river.

This concept first gained traction within the healthcare field. The idea centered on not just treating a patient’s symptoms, but also addressing why symptoms are occurring. For example, if a patient complains of constant heartburn, instead of just prescribing heartburn medication, doctors should look into dietary factors to determine if modifying the patient’s diet would solve the heartburn before it even occurs?

Today businesses of all kinds are finding upstream thinking beneficial to solving persistent problems and achieving long-term objectives. Domino’s turnaround campaign is a terrific example of upstream thinking that resulted in long-term sales increases and market share gains. Instead of launching a new creative campaign, unveiling a new menu item, or promoting discounts, Dominos looked upstream and realized the problem was that their pizza wasn’t good and there was no way any increased investment in marketing was going to change sales. The company doubled down on chef experimentation, quality ingredients and advertisements acknowledging the problem and two years later they were selling so much pizza they almost ran out of pepperoni.

The Benefits of Thinking Upstream
  • Supports Achievement of Long-term Goals – Solving the result of a problem results in a short-term win. Sales or campaign performance may see a slight uptick, but until the problem or cause is addressed, businesses will likely be in the same position again.
  • Builds Trust and Relationships –  The best way to grow a relationship is to prove you are truly invested in shared success. Thinking upstream demonstrates a thought and resource investment that goes beyond the immediate task.
  • Creates Organic Growth Opportunities – Thinking upstream can often uncover organic growth opportunities. Looking beyond the presented problem often reveals the need for a new approach, research, new product or advertising campaign.
  • Improves Internal Processes – Upstream thinking can also benefit any company’s internal processes. If a deliverable is continually missing the mark, maybe the problem lies at the beginning or before the process even begins. Assessing the entire process, not just the outcome, can deliver better efficiency.

I challenge all of us to not just “check the box” on a project. Go the extra step. Look beyond the given problem to address what is causing it. If we all begin thinking upstream, maybe we can save those hypothetical babies floating down the river.

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