leadership incorporated blog

January 22, 2012

Leaders: Are you focused downstream or upstream?

A man walking along a river suddenly sees a local farmer being carried along in the current, struggling to keep his head above water. He heroically jumps in to the rescue. No sooner has he got the man to shore and caught his breath, but he sees another farmer bobbing up and down, screaming for help. Again he jumps in. But they just keep coming. He can’t pull them out fast enough. He starts to become angrier and angrier at these big, stupid farmers who kept falling in the river. He sees the Mayor walking by and calls out for help, but the Mayor runs away, making the man even more furious.

Does this sound like anything you are doing in your work?

Frank, the CEO of an ad agency,  is frustrated by the constant conflict between the creative and account teams, which results in a tremendous waste of time and money — not to mention the impact on client retention and company morale. The creative group complains that the account team doesn’t provide adequate input and sets unrealistic deadlines. The account team fires back that the creatives don’t address the input that’s given and over-create. Meanwhile, they continue to miss the target and have to do work over and over, job after job, month after month, year after year. What makes Frank the angriest is when the creative department starts demanding a presence in client meetings, not understanding how that undermines the account team or the cost of that duplication of effort to the company.

Jody, the head of a regional commercial bank, is trying to support Samantha, one of her VPs in solving a problem with team meetings. Team members aren’t engaged and when they aren’t specifically “on,” they are checking email and doing “who knows what else” on their smart phones. Important information needs to be repeated often. People who slipped out for calls need to be tracked down at critical moments. Meetings take at least twice as long as they should and waste company time and money. She has tried to outlaw smart phone use in meetings. She is outraged when team members have the nerve to complain about Samantha who is the one person Jody can count on to be focused and dealing with business issues.

Back to our man at the river.

Why were the man’s tireless efforts having no impact? It turns out that one mile upstream, on the path to the mill, there is a rickety wooden bridge with no guard rail. A section of supports are loose and as the farmers move across the bridge with their heavy loads, the slats dip and tip them right into the river.

And who discovered this? Why, the Mayor, who hadn’t been running away from the problem at all, but running upstream to find its cause.

If Frank were to look upstream, it would become obvious that his problem lay neither with the account execs nor the creatives but with agency protocol that has the account team as the sole point of client contact. From this perspective it might be easier to see that giving the creative team client contact is not duplicating effort, and is actually a solution to the problem.

Looking upstream, Jody might see that Samantha, her engaged team leader, was actually causing the problem, by using meetings to think out loud and presenting every bit of data before reaching her point or a conclusion. From here, it makes much more sense to solve the problem by coaching Samantha to prepare her thoughts in advance and communicate more succinctly.

When we’re in a downstream solution, it’s only natural to turn our anger on people looking upstream.

When looking downstream at a problem, it can feel quite compellingly that we stand to lose everything by shifting our attention away from the problem. But, that is often exactly what we must do. It’s all about perspective. And the cue to stop what we’re doing and look upstream is when we find ourselves continuing to pull metaphorical farmers out of the river — and becoming angry at the farmers for being there.

So, how about you? Where would looking upstream give you a different perspective on the problem at hand? Where are you trying to solve a business or personal problem downstream when an upstream solution could be a game changer?

Wishing you the inspiration to see your challenges with new eyes over the next few weeks.

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