You and a friend are having a picnic on the side of a river and just as you’re laying out your picnic blanket getting ready to sit and eat you hear a shout from the direction of the river. So, you look behind you and there’s a child thrashing in the water apparently drowning. You both instinctively dive in, fish the child out and bring them to safety.
Just as your adrenaline is beginning to settle down a little bit, you hear a second shout. You look back and its another child also thrashing. So back in you go and you fish them out. No sooner have you gotten back to shore and you hear two more shouts; and so it begins this kind of revolving door of rescue.
You’re in and out and in and out and its getting exhausting. Right about that time, your friend swims out, steps on to the shore and starts to walk seemingly as if to leave you alone. You say “Hey, where are you going? I can’t save all these kids by myself!” And your friend says, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the river.”
This parable was the inspiration for best-selling author Chip Heath’s new book Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen.
Get to the systems level
The lesson this parable taught Chip was that so many times we get stuck in a cycle of reaction without taking the time to get to the systems level and think about if we could stamp out certain problems instead of always reacting to them.
This is a systems level of thinking. Rather than solving problems as they’re arising, we’re going upstream and analyzing the system that’s creating these problems.
Instead of improving our ability to put out fires, we’re asking ourselves “How can we better prevent fires from breaking out?”
I heard an interview with Chip on a recent podcast I listen to (Invested) where he gave a couple examples of looking upstream…
How did this happen?
The first one is about the YMCA.
They are the leading provider of swim lessons in the country. There are usually about a dozen drowning deaths annually, which really isn’t a lot when you think about the thousands and thousands of pools in operation.
But, they have done systemic work to push this down toward zero by constantly analyzing and understanding pools so well that they continue to identify how problems were enabled to happen and performing fixes to the system.
For example, they’ve pushed the lifeguard’s chair closer to the pool so there are no blindspots when they scan. They’ve identified different scanning techniques that enables a lifeguard to scan a pool within 5-10 seconds. They’ve banned lifeguards from using cell phones when they’re in their chair. They’ve incorporated colored wristbands that signal how experienced of a swimmer a child is so lifeguards can focus on the less experienced swimmers.
Although the number of drowings are really good and one would expect that some will occur – they continue to analyze and make adjustments – because the life of EACH and EVERY child really matters. The result of this is you go from 1 in a million to 1 in 10 million to 1 in 100 million.
It’s not intentional
The second example was about Expedia. The online travel site started digging into their call center data. They figured out something that made jaws drop. For every 100 transactions that were booked through the site, 58 of them on average would end up calling the call center. For those of you that don’t know anything about this, that’s an extraordinary number. It means that most people are having an issue or are confused after they book their trip.
They dug into this and found out that the number 1 reason people were calling was to get a copy of their itinerary. 20 million calls were made in 2012 for people wanting a copy of their itinerary.
How does something like this happen in the first place?
The system they set up to run by allowed it to happen. It was no one’s fault per se. No one intentionally caused this problem.
But when they figured this out and went upstream to tackle the problem, those 20 million calls basically went to zero and made $100 million in cost vanish.
The same problems come back
You find a lot of good-intentioned Christians that are “jumping into the water” on a daily basis so-to-speak. Maybe they’re in ministry full-time or maybe they’re just simply motivated to build God’s Kingdom with whatever lot they have in life.
When you look at this from the perspective of people, you see desire, dedication, scrappiness, resourcefulness and many other good and noble qualities. It can be inspiring.
But, when you look at things from a systems perspective, you realize something that’s pretty horrifying.
If you don’t change the system, you just realize that once you solve a problem, you’re going to be working around those same problems the next week, month or year.
If you don’t have the fortitude to go upstream and do some root-cause analysis, you end up getting trapped, and that trap remains.
The bigger question than “what do we do about this problem?” is “why did we have to deal with this problem in the first place?”
Finding the bigger issue
When applying this to church life, here’s an example of a downstream question…
If a church is a group of people that behave like a body with many parts and all work together to accomplish God’s mission in the earth, then how do we get more people involved?
The answer to this question simply solves a problem that will be recurring. You’ll likely come up with some kind of marketing campaign (a sermon series maybe) in hopes that people will be convicted and respond to the call for action. But even if there is a response – the problem will come back because there’s a bigger issue there.
The upstream version of this question might look something like this…
If a church is a group of people that behave like a body with many parts and all work together to accomplish God’s mission in the earth, then why do most of the people that attend our church only come to worship services and never get involved beyond that?
This question will lead you down deep to the root of a problem and motivate you to look for solutions that change the system instead of providing a temporary fix to a recurring problem.
Frustration is the seed of action
When people figure out that problems they’ve been dealing with are systems problems that can be solved by changing the system, it sparks action.
Organizational consultant and researcher Steve Spear said…
Change begins when people feel an insufferable frustration.
This tends to be the seed of upstream action.
So if you’re feeling this way, you’re ripe to start going upstream.
So often we want to solve the problem of how to better take the kids out of the water instead of going to tackle the guy throwing them in the water. We get so into this mode that it blinds us to the possibilities that we could actually prevent any kids from getting thrown in the river.
So, next time you feel that frustration, move upstream instead of wearing yourself out by jumping in and out of the water of solvable recurring problems.
The Church is the culmination of God’s grand plan. Nothing is more important than our church life to always be thinking upstream.