Always Go Upstream

I played rugby, which commentators like to say is a ‘collision sport’. As a result of those collisions I spent quite a bit of time with the physiotherapist. Working with physios, the most amazing realization – and many of you will have experienced this – is when you tell them confidently where the problem is.

‘Yes it hurts there, just under the left shoulder blade, when I twist like this’…’ah! YEP. That’s it’.

They start doing their thing. Tracing back.

‘What about this? Hmmm. And now, what about if you try to touch your toes? OK, and now lift your arm and twist to me – what about here?’.

And suddenly – KABLAMMO – they prod a completely different part of your body – sometimes literally your butt not your shoulder, or your inside foot and not your lower back – and you are rewarded with a completely unexpected electric shock of pain.

Physios call this ‘referred pain’. And in these sobering moments you learn a few things:

Firstly, you don’t know shit about your own body. Secondly, physios are not only professional sadists – the experienced ones call on thousands of hours of practice, such that their work can feel more like magic than medicine. Thirdly, the actual cause of your issue will very often be in a completely different part of your body than where you experience it.

Just like our bodies, our teams, organizations and societies are organic, and are interconnected, complex systems. And often I find that – quite understandably – in work our focus is on the symptom that is most obviously present. The customer enquiries left unprocessed and unloved. The high turnover in a particular role or team. The lack of verve in some marketing copy. The failure again to restock a particular product two days before it runs out.

And the takeaway that I find useful today is that most of the time we’re fixing downstream issues. Consequences of something else. The ‘referred pain’. Symptoms, not causes.

As leaders, our job is to always be going upstream.

Like physios, we need to track back. Call on instinct and experience. To trust the curiosity and intelligence of our teams and ourselves and ask why the things happened that led to the particular issue that has presented itself today.

Downstream we can make quick fixes. Band aid the problem. Temporarily alleviate the pain. But it won’t go away.

If we don’t really go and do the work on the root cause, our body, team, organization or society may well cleverly reroute around it, patch things up, do the best that it can. (I have a left knee that doesn’t bend fully, a right forearm that won’t grip totally, a wonky shoulder that leaves me with a stiff neck sometimes – I function, but old unfixed injuries hold me back). Things can still function. 

It’s upstream that we’ll actually solve it.

It’s upstream that we can really amplify our impact by locating and fixing the issue at its cause, once and for all. It’s upstream that we can fundamentally reroute how resources are allocated and directed to unlock the best performance. It’s upstream that taking the time to be calm, deliberate and bigger picture will pay 10x, 100x or often 1,000x back over the coming weeks and years. So leadership – for me – is all about going upstream.

A sidenote to finish.

There’s another benefit to always going upstream. It takes us to interesting places. We learn more. We’ll end up speaking to interesting people about bigger opportunities in areas that are often ‘outside’ of our direct scope. Whether we’re fixing problems in a company we’ve lived in for many years or being recruited somewhere new, when we ask ourselves and the people we’re working with ‘OK, and why is this happening and where does it start?’ we open up a much bigger horizon of opportunity for them and for us.  And that’s not only good, it’s how interesting explorations and big adventures begin.

Always go upstream.

2 thoughts on “Always Go Upstream

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