Books: Embrace Upstream Thinking

In Dan Heath's latest book, he urges leaders to set aside traditional efforts toward resolution in favor of “upstream thinking,” fixing problems rather than symptoms. Plus: saving face and the art of reflection.

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

By Dan Heath; Avid Reader Press; 308 pages; $30

Block a few hours—Dan Heath’s latest book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, is out. As usual, it’s a thought-provoking journey through original research, theory, and engaging anecdotes, this time around problem resolution. Only those “inevitable” troubles don’t yet exist (we have “problem blindness,” as Heath calls it). Or they may fall into the not-my-job category. Or they may even overwhelm to the point of abandonment (he calls it “tunneling”). Think chronic homelessness, dismal graduation rates, and preventative healthcare.  Or perhaps a worldwide pandemic.

But Heath is a data-driven optimist. In this call to action, he urges leaders to set aside traditional efforts toward resolution in favor of “upstream thinking,” fixing problems rather than symptoms. “To succeed upstream, leaders must detect problems early, target leverage points in complex systems, find reliable ways to measure success, pioneer new ways of working together, and embed their successes into systems to give them permanence,” he writes.

Heath excels at capturing the ah-ha moments in his case studies, teaching us when, how, and why upstream thinking has led to impressive results despite grim odds, failed systems, and seemingly uncontrollable outcomes

Heath doesn’t shy away from sticky questions, either, such as catching early warnings of a problem, determining who pays “for what does not happen,” and measuring success in the absence of harm.

An upbeat, energizing read that redirects your strategic thinking.

Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust

By Maya Hu-Chan; Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.; 224 pages; $17.95

With concise care, Executive Coach Maya Hu-Chan explains how to use “face”—one’s status, reputation, and self-esteem—as “social currency” to strengthen global relationships and enable candid conversations critical to organizational success.

In addition to identifying different nuances of face among cultures, she introduces two models—BUILD (benevolence, understanding, interacting, learning, and delivery) and AAA (aware, acquire, adapt)—as “building blocks” to establish inclusive, respectful interactions.

Hu-Chan combines these models with anecdotes to deepen the definition of “saving face” beyond avoidance of embarrassment to a more advanced professional skill requiring greater empathy, authenticity, and understanding of motivation. Using and “honoring face” then becomes a leadership tool to achieve goals like accelerating innovation and improving team dynamics.

A success guide for professionals in today’s multicultural workforce.

Step Back: How to Bring the Art of Reflection Into Your Busy Life

By Joseph Badaracco; Harvard Business Review Press; 162 pages; $27.99

Harvard Business School Professor Joseph Badaracco spent years repeatedly interviewing more than 100 CEOs about their attitudes and practices around reflection. He found that while many leaders acknowledged the need to step back for thoughtful assessment and visioning, they had no set process to maximize those moments and often felt time spent in quiet contemplation was unproductive.

In response, Badaracco developed “mosaic reflection,” an adaptive approach that habitually integrates contemplation, pondering, mental meandering, and other reflective periods with different purposes into our busy schedules. His four tactics will help optimize your thinking: aim for good enough, downshift sometimes to stop defaulting to analytical thinking and planning, ponder difficult issues, and “pause and measure up.”

A doable refinement of our usual scattered deliberations.

(Getty Images/Associations Now Illustration)

Kristin Clarke, CAE

By Kristin Clarke, CAE

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is books editor for Associations Now and president of Clarke Association Content. MORE

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