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Upstream w/ Dan Heath (Part 1)

Published 4/22/2020

In today's episode, we sit down with Dan Heath, author of a new book , Upstream. In this part 1 of the conversation with Dan, we discuss preventative work over reactive work among teams.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
How does it feel to prevent a problem? Notice that we're not saying how does it feel to fix a problem, but instead to never know what the consequences would have been. That's what we're talking about with today's guest, Dan Heath. Dan is the author of so many books that have been instrumental in my career and my thinking. A lot of the content on this show has been inspired by Dan's work, and I'm so grateful that Dan chose to spend some time with me here. Dan, along with his brother Chip, where co-authors in the New York Times best-selling books made to stick and switch. He and Chip also wrote the power of moments and a book that changed the way I think about decision-making entirely for the rest of my life called decisive. In today's episode, we're discussing Dan's most recent book, Upstream. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book. It is incredibly time-appropriate, and it is appropriate for especially those of you who are managers, who are designing systems, designing companies. This book can help you change the way you think about preventative work rather than reactive work, but I don't want to give too much away. I want to get straight into the first part of our interview here with Dan Heath. Dan, welcome to Developer Tea. Thanks so much for having me, all. I've been interested in your work for a long time, and it certainly has been the inspiration for a lot of the content that's been on this show. People are very likely to be interested in this work as well, you know, perhaps years ago, I suppose three years, four years maybe. I remember being totally changed by decisive. It was the concept of having the third option as something that I talk about on this show, quite a lot. Thank you for the work that you do. Thanks for saying that. Appreciate that. We're going to talk a little bit about Upstream, your newest book on today's episode. Can you back up a little bit and give a little bit of background on how you arrived at writing about solving problems upstream? Yes. And this is one where I actually know the answer to that question. Sometimes it's a little more amorphous, but this project dates back to 2009. That was the first time I started a word file with a bunch of notes with the title Upstream, and it came from two sources. The first was, I heard a parable that apparently is very common in the world of public health, but I had never heard it before. And it goes like this, you and a friend are having a picnic beside a river, and you've laid out your picnic blanket, and you're just about to have a meal when you hear a shout from the direction of the river, and you look back. And there's a child thrashing in the water, apparently drowning. And so you instinctively jump in and you rescue the child and you bring them to shore. Just as you're starting to calm down from that, you hear a second shout, and you look back and it's a different child, also, apparently drowning. And so back in, you go and you fish that child out. And then you hear two shout. You look back, now there's two kids in the river, and so begins this kind of revolving door of rescue where you're in, you're out, you're in, you're out. And right about this time, your friend swims to shore and steps out and starts walking away as though to leave you alone, and 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. And that in a nutshell is what this book is about. It's about the trap that we fall into of reacting to problems again and again, often the same problems. You know, this is true in our lives, it's true in our work where we put out fires, we respond to emergencies, and we never get around to going upstream to tackle these problems at a systems level, potentially to stop us from ever needing to react to them. So that parable was kind of the first prod. The second was I had a conversation with a deputy chief of police in a big Canadian city. We were talking about something totally different, but then in the course of the conversation he gave this thought experiment that really stuck with me. And he said, I want you to imagine two police officers. One of them goes downtown during morning commute rush, and she just positions herself in an intersection that's known to be very chaotic, very dangerous. There's a lot of accidents there. And just by being a visible presence in that intersection, she calms drivers down. They go a little slower, they're a little more cautious, and she prevents accidents from happening. Meanwhile, there's a second officer who goes to a different intersection downtown, and this is one where there's a prohibited right turn. And she hides around the corner. And when people make that right turn, it's forbidden, she jumps out, pulls them over and gives them a ticket. And this deputy chief said, which of these officers do you think had a bigger impact on public safety and public health? And he said, indisputably it's the first, right? She probably prevented accidents and injuries from happening. But if you ask which of these officers will be promoted, which of them will be praised, which of them will be rewarded, it's the second officer. Because she comes back with this very tangible pilot tickets. And meanwhile, that first officer, how does she prove that she did anything? I mean, how does she distinguish what she did from sitting at a donut shop for two hours? There's one guy who was headed to work that morning that crossed through this intersection. And in the alternate reality where she wasn't there, he would have been in an accident. But he slowed down just enough to avoid that accident. He'll never know the alternate fate he avoided nor will the officer ever know that she helped him avoid it. And so there's a kind of ambiguity about upstream efforts, about preventing problems before they happen. And something about the combination of that parable and that thought experiment just became irresistible to me and started the research that led to this book, what, 11 years later. That's incredible. I mean, both of those stories have so much packed into them. It's always wonderful to hear the seeds that go into kind of growing these works. Would you call it art? I suppose it's art, right? But these bodies of research. I think that that would be overclaiming to call what I do art, but fair enough. Yeah, but it is fun. I mean, it's fun to have a file where you can look back and say the origin of when I first saved this file was 2009. I don't think any of the other books I've worked on have had that span of time where the idea has just been constantly interesting to me. Yeah, you just shocked me. And when I realized that 2009 was 11 years ago, that's incredible. So, and you get into some of this. You get into, you know, how do you get the early warning of a problem or how do you know that you're succeeding in the book? We're going to talk about it a little bit of that. But first, I want to kind of go back to that first parable where the kids are being thrown in the water and you and your friend are saving them kind of taking turns tag-taming. And you run away, right? And I think this may be, you know, this particular parable points out an interesting difficulty in upstream thinking. And that is the initial cost. By you walking away, it's possible that one of those kids that's coming down the stream, well, they're not going to actually survive, right? There's, you're abandoning the one to save the many in some ways. And even though it's just a parable, I'm not accusing you, Dan, of any sort of trouble. Child killer. You know, I think there's something there, right? It's there's a cost to that initial commitment to walk away from what is urgent and go towards something that's more potentially important or more impactful in the long run. So, you know, do you get into this in the book, this idea that there's, you know, some initial barrier in cost? No question. And you put your finger on what is probably the core dynamic that keeps us downstream is that there's always something urgent that commands our attention. Like, there's a study that I cite in the book by a woman named Anita Tucker who for her dissertation at Harvard, shadowed nurses for hundreds of hours. So, just followed them around. She was interested in how they solved problems and dealt with problems. And she describes what their day was like. And it was basically a never ending series of challenges, you know, they didn't have the right medication at the moment they needed it or piece of equipment broke or they ran out of towels and they had to run to the unit down the hall to steal someone their towels for their patients. And sometimes it was novel things like Anita Tucker sites this one nurse who was checking out a mother who just had a baby and part of the checkout procedure is to remove the security anklet from the baby. And in this case, there wasn't one. It was missing. And so they did this frantic search and finally found the anklet in the baby's bassinet. So problem solved, mother was checked out. And then a few hours later, Anita Tucker says this same nurse had the exact same problem happen again with a different mother and different baby this time they couldn't find it at all. And so they had to go to an alternate protocol for checking out the mom and making sure the baby was hers and all that stuff. And so Anita Tucker paints this portrait of nurses that they are scrappy, they're resourceful, they're capable of improvising solutions to problems. They don't just run to the boss when something goes wrong. And it's an inspiring portrait when you look at it that way. But if you shift the lens just a little bit and look at it from the organizational perspective, you realize something that's a bit shocking, which is what she's describing is the description of a system that never learns, that never improves because these nurses had learned they developed a habit of working around every problem that they faced. And one thing that you can guarantee is if you just work around problems rather than solving them, you guarantee that you're going to be solving those same problems the next month or the next year. And so this is the trap, right? You always have those kids drowning in the river, you always have those anklets falling off, you always have that missing medication. And you feel like you need to stay where you are because those things are urgent, but at the same time you're doing yourself to stay there forever. And I think that's the core dynamic that we face. And probably 99 times out of 100 in different situations, we make the choice to stay downstream. And what I'm trying to get at in this book is not to pretend like that's an easy dilemma or that we're all just idiots for making that choice. What I'm trying to do is present a realistic picture of, look, this is what makes upstream work hard. And this is why it's worth fighting those dynamics anyway because the payoff can be so profound. Today's episode is sponsored by Educative. For developers, learning is really a part of your career. Fundamental part of your career never stops. Even in the most senior portions of your career, there are always new languages. There's always new frameworks, technologies, philosophies. I need you to check out Educative.io because it helps you learn faster and more efficiently. Instead of video-based courses, which would require you to scrub back and forth, zoom in sometimes to see the code on the screen, their courses at Educative.io are all text-based and you can skim and double back very easily, almost like a book. Each course also contains pre-configured developer environments so you can practice as you learn that's a part of the course. Courses cover all kinds of in-demand topics like machine learning, Kubernetes, AWS, system architecture, and much more. And they just launch subscriptions at almost 50% off. This is a great time to check it out. You can get an additional 10% off of everything by visiting Educative.io slash Developer Tea. That's Educative.io slash Developer Teaall one word. That's 10% off. Thanks again to Educative for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. We have different types of motivations as humans. Of course we do. We have the motivation to avoid things, but also to seek things. And I heard a wonderful quote one time that said, and this is in the context of organizational culture, it said, culture is not what you say, it's what you celebrate. And I wonder if we end up celebrating this downstream work, just like you just mentioned in this story of nurses or they're scrappy, they're problem-solving, and that feels wonderful. It feels like a badge of honor, just like saving the children who are drowning might. It absolutely is right. And I think a lot of times we unwittingly develop a culture of heroics. We celebrate the person who stays up all night to do that frantic last final work before the deadline or the person who bales us out of some crisis. And that kind of heroism can be addictive. I mean, it feels good to be a hero. I've heard from some readers who read this, I have a little rant about heroism in the book, and I have some readers who wrote to me to describe colleagues who they said were so addictive to being held up as a hero that they felt like they honestly kind of created crises for the sake of being able to save them at the last minute. And so I think that's part of our nature. And there's a bigger factor in play here too, which is the visibility of success is so different. You know, if there's a kid drowning in a pool at a YMCA and lifeguard goes in and saves them and rescues them, I mean, that is going to make the local newspaper, the lifeguard is a hero. Shratic. I mean, really is a hero. The implicit message here is not that I'm undermining the lifeguard. Course the lifeguard is a hero. If it was my child, I would want them to be there. But if you think about all the people who didn't save the day, but rather kept the day from needing to be saved, that's a lot more people who you'll never in a million years think of. I actually did study the YMCA's success at reducing drowning deaths. And you know what's behind it is a lot of really boring stuff, none of which would meet our definition of heroism. It's stuff like they learn to push the lifeguard's chairs closer to the pool to remove any blind spots. They taught lifeguards a new technique for scanning the pool so that they could, you know, envision, not envision, so they could see all aspects of the pool within like a 10 second span. They learn to rotate lifeguards among shifts just like they do in the airport with the TSA so they don't get too bored. And it's stuff like that, right? And that involves training, that involves consultants, that involves pushing chairs around. And that saved far more lives than will the lifeguards frantically diving into the pool to fish out the kids? But those people don't get any credit, right? We'll never know their names. They won't even know that they've succeeded. I mean, at best, what they will know is that if you look at some data on a page, the drowning deaths go down by 30% over a period of a couple of years. But even if you have confidence that data is right, you still don't know which people you helped, right? It's just, it's numbers on a page. And so you have to take a heart and confidence from seeing those numbers on a page decline, but it lacks that kind of visceral charge that you get from downstream heroics. Yeah, it's kind of an interesting thing because we're basically talking about making things boring in a lot of ways, right? Like, you know, and I don't, you know, I mean that kind of tongue in cheek, but in some ways, what we're doing is we're saying, hey, the negative consequences of the drama is not worth a positive feeling of the dopamine, right? And we're taking away some of that underlying reward structure that we feel and replacing it with better outcomes. So is this a human, I mean, this seems like a deeply human struggle? It definitely is. And I would even go so far as to say that the need for heroism is often a sign of systems failure. You know, the fact that we needed heroics means something that we could have and probably should have foreseen and handled competently was not. And you know, you and I are recording in this in the midst of the coronavirus quarantine era. And it's all fresh to mine, right? That many of the things that created drama and emergency and hardship and even death in this situation were foreseeable. And frankly, we're foreseen. I mean, people are on record for decades, warning about a scenario almost exactly like this one. And so it's frustrating that the true competence often is drama free. And yet there's some part of us, some animal part of our brains and our emotions that just kind of craves those cycles, I think. Absolutely. And I wonder, you know, is there a future where, you know, and potentially this is too far away and it's really more theory than it is anything, but a future where we are able to kind of reprogram what we thrive on. And if we can imagine that we get the same kind of reward from prevention efforts, for example, right? And not just knowing it, but feeling it, is there a way to get there? I like that. It's like every day at your house doesn't catch on fire. You get like a little dopamine squirting. I like where you're going with that. Maybe the bots will save us with something like that. Yeah. I mean, you know, I think there's a lot to this. There's a lot of complexity and I love that you've touched on this struggle between. And by the way, I feel like I want to chime in because I worry that your listeners are thinking we're describing dynamics that are just innate and impenetrable. And the reality is they may be hard, but they're certainly not uncomparable. Right. Like even in that nurse situation that I described, you know, there are ways to escape that trap that don't require us to rewire our brains. Like some health systems have started using, and I imagine they're comparable equivalents in the world to developers called safety huddles where every morning they'll get together a group of doctors and nurses to talk about what happened the day prior. And it's a quick meeting, maybe 20 minutes, everybody standing up. And what they're doing is reviewing safety near misses. You know, we almost gave the wrong medication to this patient or this complicated patient almost eluded our efforts to save him or her. And they talk through what can be learned from that. And if you think about a forum like that, it might only be 20 minutes of an eight or nine hour day, but it's an opportunity to get out of that tunnel of downstream work. And it would have been the perfect forum for that nurse I mentioned that had the problem with two anglets being missing in a couple of hours. Like that would have been the perfect time for her to say, hey, have this weird problem yesterday, we really need to look into these anglets and what's going on with that. So I think the good news is we are so disproportionately loaded and tipped toward the downstream end of the scale that even a little bit of upstream investment can pay huge dividends. That's the good news. Absolutely. Yes, we do have this as software engineers. And in software development, we, a lot of teams practice the daily stand up, a lot of teams practice. Retrospectives, these are, you know, at the end of a certain iteration, it may not necessarily be daily, but every week or every two weeks or so. And you look back and you say, okay, what went well? And what could have gone better? It's very simple format. But I think there's also a really an interesting hidden factor here in that specific example. And that is that they do it every day. And here's why I think that's important. If you did it once a month or if you did it once a year, if you had just a yearly review, but you're very unlikely to be in the pattern of sharing those failures. Yeah. It's hard to share failure. It's hard to talk about what you did wrong yesterday. So do you think that that plays it, you know, the regularity of, or maybe the kind of the social dynamics here that we're talking about? How do we construct those kinds of social dynamics in ways that allow us to accept that we are, that we need to get better? I think that's a really insightful point that the daily rhythm to this thing is accomplishing a couple of things. And number one, there's just the obvious you allocate investment to the things that you consider worthy. And so it's a way of signaling in this organization upstream problem solving is something that we're willing to invest in. But the second thing is it's normalizing and socializing a learning culture. So you know, in researching this book, I talked to a lot of people that are experts in various kinds of quality movements, you know, ranging from quality improvement in healthcare to lean to six sigma. And I know a lot of these things have hit the world of development as well. And they all share, I think, a common spirit and even, even similar practices. And I think what you're moving toward with something like that daily safety huddle is you're moving toward the desire to be an organization that learns, which, which implies several things, one is that you're comfortable acknowledging failure that you don't have a fear of surfacing things when they go wrong, that you're going to carve out resources and time to address things at the systems level. I mean, that was what shocked Anita Tucker is that in her shadowing of nurses, she didn't find one instance of problem solving at the systems level. It was just absent. And I don't think, by the way, that's anything to do with nurses. I think that's a ubiquitous truth about professions. So if any of the people listening to this are intrigued by this idea of kind of fumbling forward toward a learning organization, I'd recommend you check out the work of a guy named Steve Speer who has devoted his work in the past several years to studying cultures like Toyota or Navy submarines or places where they absolutely have to get things right and have to get things better on an ongoing basis. And all of what that means from a cultural transformation point of view, there are the good news is there are a lot of people who have blazed this trail. I mean, there's a lot of really excellent organizations and institutions that have taken one step after another on this road to quality improvement. And they're in a place now where we can learn from them and start adopting some of these practices. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Teathe first part of my interview with Dan Heath. I highly encourage you to subscribe so you don't miss out on the second part of this interview. Hopefully you can recognize Dan's thoughtful approach to this discussion is incredibly valuable, not just because of the time that we're in, but because our jobs require us, really require us to think upstream. And Dan has done such an incredible job with this book. Go and check it out on Amazon. Thank you again to today's sponsor Educative.io slash Developer Teacan get you 10% off of everything and they just launched their subscriptions at almost 50% off head over to Educative.io slash Developer Tea. A quick shout out to today's producer Sarah Jackson. Today's episode is a part of the spec network head over to spec.fm to find other shows like Developer Teathat you can grow with in your career. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.