How do you solve a problem you unknown and unseen?

That’s the premise of Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, a new book by Dan Heath. Dan and his brother Chip have written several books. They cover topics such as change, decision-making, and making moments monumental. They leak with practical applications. Several of their processes have changed my basic approach to many problems.

Upstream is a solo act by Dan Heath. Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center.

I preordered this book in February, expecting to read a good book, glean new strategies, and move on.

Little did I know what was ahead. I started reading the week of March 8th. By the end of that week, the book became practical. COVID-19 reared a fang on America and the world.

COVID-19 resembled other SARS viruses, but different. Economies, societies, churches, and futures cratered. A specter had come to life.

Heath’s premise became current. How do you solve a problem you have not seen? That’s a good description of COVID-19.

A parable frames Heath’s discussion. A man sees a child floating down a river, drowning. He wades into the swirling water and pulls the child to safety. Then, another child comes, and another. He tires of rescuing.

He summons help. Another man runs up and asks, “what is the problem.” The fatigued rescuer tells the second man about the children in the river.

Without warning, the second man turns and leaves. The first calls out, “where are you going?”

The second replies, “I am going upstream to stop whoever is throwing these kids in the river.”

That’s upstream thinking.

We attack problems when they show up. That’s working downstream. Heath argues that we must use upstream thinking to assail issues before they show up.

That simple solution confounds everyone. We assault a problem and ignore the cause.

It is like Will Rogers commenting on the German submarine problem in World War I.

He told a general, “The solution is simple. Freeze the oceans.”

The dumbfounded officer replied, “Freeze the oceans? How do we do that?” To whit, Rogers replied, “I gave you the answer, but it’s up to you to make it work.”

Heath presents his case with three problems and seven questions. The problem section frames the barriers to upstream responses while the questions probe for effective strategies.

As with the previous books, Heath uses the case study approach. Real-world people tackle real-world issues. From homelessness to fixing sidewalks to preventing losses from lawsuits, Heath dissects strategies that have worked.

Many leaders dismiss problems in their infancy. But, as the book shows, emerging issues cascade across time to turn into raging crises. A flying roof shingle may have hit Chicken Little on his head. But then, again, the sky might be falling.

Many upstream problems require little money but demand creative and collaborative thinking. Diverse groups, all with some stake in questions, must come together.

The most difficult issues are getting funding for a problem that doesn’t exist yet.

As I read, the world crumbled due to the COVID-19 crises. Hospital professionals worked without rest. Jobs fell by the wayside. We became cocooned inside of our houses under municipal orders. Could we have dealt with the problem upstream?

I tried to apply Heath’s thinking to this problem. Think about how different March-May 2020 had it attacked an “upstream” problem in November-December 2019. Could we test millions of people for the virus? Are testing instruments available, and how do we enlarge labs to deliver quick and accurate results? Can we find a way to shrink the spread of the virus at the early stages?

I do not criticize anyone at the upper echelons who had to deal with COVID-19. Too much, “Monday morning quarterbacking” happens. Blame is a lazy substitute for hard thinking. It pounced on us, but it was not a surprise. We knew of a growing body of viruses that were resistant to medications. We had previous experiences with some infections such as SARS before.

Yet, society responds downstream. Fix issues as they show up rather than preventing a problem before it arises.

Heath’s book was prophetic in ways. He makes valid points. But, I am not optimistic that those who control significant issues will change. It requires regular people who sense a problem to collect colleagues to find a solution to a problem that has not shown up yet.

It cries out for courage and creativity, two things in short supply. Yet, Heath points up the river to stop the guy throwing children into the river. It is the best approach, even if challenging.