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  • Tamar Balkin

Can Leaders Be More Proactive In Their Approach To Complex Problems?

“Every time I think my ship is comin' in

That old tide will turn and it'll take me back out again

If I just lay back and float I'll be in trouble you see

So I gotta keep working and kicking and swimming upstream”

Swimming upstream by Glen Campbell (click here for the music)

Heath, D. (2020). Upstream : how to solve problems before they happen. P1 London: Bantam Press.


What is the connection between upstream behaviour and wellbeing?

Regular readers would know that an evidence based approach to creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace is underpinned by proactive organisation wide initiatives. In my opinion one of the biggest problems organisations face today is the psychological wellbeing of their employees.

This week saw the release by the National Mental Health Commission of the Blueprint for Mentally Healthy Workplaces. The Blueprint aims to define a vision of mentally healthy workplaces that can be shared by all organisations and businesses across Australia. Mentally Healthy workplaces are, of course a passion of mine, and public comment is invaluable at shaping the future of work in Australia. This blueprint is for all size businesses, in every sector. So please, take the time click here, have your say and play your part in creating workplaces where people thrive not just survive.


“I just don’t understand why they come in once a year looking for problems. I understand the need for compliance, but we work for the same organisation. Surely they could help us nip things in the bud, or even prevent problems rather than wrapping us over the knuckles when things go awry”

Coaching client

Regular readers would be aware of the benefits of prevention, and management literature is filled with techniques to uncover the true causes of errors in organisations, yet it is not common practice. To go “upstream” seems logical yet also impossible. When large amounts of money have been spent on something and or it has been sanctioned by the board and senior executive, it is very challenging to then highlight inconsistencies or errors of judgement.

So what are the barriers to upstream action?

Design of the organisation

Regular readers would be aware that organisations are particularly complex indesign politics and overwhelmed by constant change. In many organisations there are silos, departments focus on their own KPI’s, stakeholders, customers, culture, teams, and concerns. Collaboration and cross functional teams are spoken of but either not implemented properly or at all. Cooperation within a team, and across teams promotes a problem-solving orientation, which in turn allows team members and leaders to discuss errors and learn from mistakes.

Lack of psychological safety

For proactive work to occur, all employees need to feel safe and comfortable talking openly about errors. Regular readers would be aware of Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety. A central theme in research on psychological safety is that it facilitates the willing contribution of ideas and actions to a shared organisation. People are more likely to believe they will be given the benefit of the doubt when relationships are characterised by trust and respect. A culture of psychological safety enables creative ideas and critical discussion, without embarrassment or excessive personal conflict between team members. In fact, it will serve to facilitate the open respectful conversations necessary for upstream preventive problem solving.

Who is listening?

Regular readers would be aware that often it may be the more junior staff who can identify issues early and therefore upward communication can be a fundamental resource in helping contemporary organisations learn and succeed. Typically speaking up to the boss to challenge the status quo, or identify problems or opportunities for improvement, can be seen as risky, and inappropriate.

Problem blindness

If we don’t see a problem, how can we resolve it, sometimes something that’s actually ineffective has become normalised, and seen as ‘just how it is around here'. The visual phenomenon known as inattentional bias, whereby " we can fail to perceive very major things going on right in front of our eyes," (Brian Scholl) especially if they are unexpected, may apply to workplace events and behaviour as well.

Lack of ownership

If the problem exists across departments, as is most often the case, then who is actually responsible for the resolution? It takes a high level of emotional intelligence to work across divisions with grace, humility and curiosity in order to access all the necessary information. A strategic evidence based approach will enable the generation of upstream options, and influencing skills are essential to ensure change occurs.


“When a problem comes up, it’s only natural to solve the problem as quickly and inexpensively as possible. You cut yourself, you put a band-aid on. Your truck gets a flat tire, you put the spare on. The lawn mower won’t start, you buy a goat. What if a problem keeps recurring? Do you keep fixing it?”

When we are overwhelmed and have a shortage of time, typically we will focus on the downstream issues, the ones in close proximity that are causing the current concerns or hiccups. When something goes wrong many people believe they only have time to react and naively believe they will address the bigger issues when there’s nothing "urgent".

Choosing a focus

Regular readers would know that there is no silver bullet or magic leaver that will always be appropriate in all organisations. Therefore taking an evidence based approach to identifying problems is invaluable (click here for my blog on evidence based practice).

Critical elements of an upstream approach

  • Identify the right people: to both research and lead the change

  • Know how to change the system

  • Find a point of leverage

  • Identify the financial and other consequences of no action

  • Identify early warning signs

  • Criterion and measures of success

  • Define steps to mitigate harm


“We make it a priority on every single day of our lives, even the busiest ones, to perform a twice-daily regimen of preventative scrubbing”…

“The most successful habit we have developed as a species is for the preservation of our…. Lungs brains hearts teeth.”

Dan Heath


Click here for a video my daughter took of a baby turtle making its way to the ocean

Final thoughts

A few years ago my family had the privilege of watching baby turtles hatch and scurry to the sea, bravely dodging seagulls and other predators. Once they enter the ocean, they need to independently stay safe, warm and fed, for many years until they are fully grown and continue the mating cycle. To be proactive in their approach to problem solving, leaders need to be prepared to be brave, and swim against the prevailing tide for as long as necessary.


References: Thompson, H. (2014). Where Do Newly Hatched Baby Sea Turtles Go? [online] Smithsonian. Available at: Edmondson, A.C. and Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), pp.23–43. Sights unseen. (n.d.). [online] Available at:

Team, J.B. & C. (n.d.). Top 4 Companies That Use Cross-Functional Teams to Drive Innovation. [online] Available at: Heath, D. (2020). Upstream : how to solve problems before they happen. London: Bantam Press.

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