Do you feel like you’re constantly solving problems?
For some folks, it’s as though they get one thing sorted and another pops up – or maybe the same kind of problem recurs.
Bill Murray fans might call it a Groundhog Day situation, which sounds cuter than it feels, but the more technical term is being in a reactive cycle.
- Push through and deal with the problem when it erupts again, and/or
- Vow that next time will be different (and then they take care of the problem again and again).
It’s exhausting and unproductive if you’re just responding to crisis after crisis.
Prevent problems before they happen
Our Admin officer, Tricia Hiebert, recommended I check out Dan Heath’s book, Upstream, in which he explores how to prevent problems before they happen.
In the book, Dan explains: “We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints… So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?”
In a recent podcast, Dan shared the parable that inspired the name of the book. It’s a public health parable that is commonly attributed to Irving Zola and it goes like this:
You and a friend are having a picnic beside a river, so you drape out your picnic blanket and just as you’re about to sit down and eat, you hear a cry from the river behind you. There’s a child struggling in the river apparently drowning, so you and your friend instinctively jump in, you fish out the kid, you bring him to shore.
Then just as your adrenaline is starting to subside a little bit you hear another cry. There is another child in the river, so you jump back in the river, you grab the child and come back to shore. No sooner have you fished this child out then there are two more kids behind you struggling and drowning. So you begin this revolving door of rescue and it’s starting to get exhausting but the flow never ends.
Then you notice your friend swimming to shore and stepping out as if to leave you alone. You say, “Hey, where are you going? I can’t do this alone! These kids need our help.” Your friend says, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the river.”
It’s a quirky story to explain how many people run their lives and their business: They’re responding to crisis after crisis, but never fully realize that there is a solution to this exhausting cycle of stress and feeling overwhelmed. (Of course figuring out the root cause isn’t always as simple as walking upstream! And sometimes you need that two-pronged approach of saving the drowning children AND figuring out why there are always more kids in the river.)
The reality is that if you don’t start solving problems upstream, you might get it all done, but at what cost? Peace of mind? Wasted time? Maybe even losing a client? Some folks get so caught up in reacting that it damages their reputation: “They’re quick to help but it seems like that’s all they do, constantly solving problems but never preventing them.” Yikes!
Why do we get stuck downstream?
In his book, Dan explains the three reasons leaders don’t move naturally into upstream problem-solving:
Problem blindness: If we don’t realize it’s a problem, we’re not going to solve it.
Pointing fingers: If we don’t take ownership over a problem, we can blame it on other people or other departments (and maybe even hope other people will fix it). If you have each party involved in a process take ownership and pretend they are solely responsible for the problems downstream, they will all identify various trouble spots.
We keep our heads down: If we just want to keep moving forward, we do so with tunnel vision. Instead of looking around to figure out why there’s an obstacle, we just endeavor to get past it as fast as we can.
I would add in a couple more:
Fatigue: Sometimes we know that the source of the problem is going to be difficult to solve and exhausting, so we put up with the smaller frustrations on an ongoing basis.
Politics: This ties in with Dan’s “keep our heads down” reason, but brings into it the notion that when others in the organization have an interest in the status quo, they don’t appreciate “trouble makers” or people pointing out problems. So sometimes, in the interests of our own career or our team’s success, we continue to be an excellent firefighter, squashing each problem as it occurs rather than risk pointing out the source.
Stop floundering downstream and look upstream
It’s hard when we’re in the midst of solving problems that are right in front of us and need our attention. But here are steps to help us shift perspective from dealing with the myriad small fires and figuring out how to prevent them at the source:
Don’t assume you know the solution: Dan gives many examples in his book of leaders in private and public sectors who were able to overcome big problems by moving to an upstream problem-solving mindset. But they don’t do it alone! Sometimes the frontline workers were the ones who were able to identify the source of the trouble. (Pro-tip: Here are the six characteristics of problem-solving leaders.)
Widen the focus: You may need to rally team members from across departments to effectively figure out how to prevent recurring issues. It’s possible that you’re blind to what’s actually causing the issues because it’s not happening within your area. Or, it could be that you’re so used to how things are that you can’t see the source or the solution – what you see are the symptoms of the problem – but someone with a slightly different vantage point can. Then you can get close to the problem and understand better how to fix it at the source. (Pro-tip: Working with a coach is a great way to see new perspectives and figure out new angles.)
Cultivate a culture where people can raise issues: Early in your career, did you ever see a solution to something but your boss didn’t want to hear it? It’s important that leaders encourage their team members to share feedback and bad news. Having early warning of an issue gives leaders time to fix the problem upstream before it’s really bad downstream.
Fix problems instead of adapting to them: If something isn’t working, it’s human nature to adapt. The silly thing is that sometimes the problems that we keep stressing out over have simple solutions – but if we’re busy running from emergency to emergency those simple fixes might evade us. Instead of putting tape on the leaky pipe, call the plumber! For example, some companies spend a significant amount of money on staff to handle calls from clients. But what if there are a significant number of calls that could be preempted by providing answers so clients didn’t have to call for the same information over and over?
Stop rewarding busy work: Some folks aren’t motivated to find efficient solutions because “we’ve always done things this way” and they don’t feel it’s their place to look at solving problems upstream. It is just expected that everyone will do ten steps to get a result and then they may even brag about how busy they are because for some, busy still equates to importance.
What if you start encouraging people to share their ideas for streamlining and improving processes? It might be that to solve the source of the problem, leaders have to change systems and bureaucracy.
When have you reacted to the same problem repeatedly? Can you think of where you are adapting instead of solving the problem? How can you shift from solving problems downstream to solving them upstream?