P : Your most recent book , Upstream : The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen , distinguishes between “ upstream ” and “ downstream ” thinking . What distinguishes the two ? H : There ’ s a parable ( often attributed to Irving Zola ) that captures the distinction : You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river . Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water — a child is drowning . Without thinking , you both dive in , grab the child , and swim to shore . Before you can recover , you hear another child cry for help . You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well . Then another struggling child drifts into sight . . . and another . . . and another . The two of you can barely keep up . Suddenly , you see your friend wading out of the water , seeming to leave you alone .“ Where are you going ?” you demand . Your friend answers ,“ I ’ m going upstream to tackle the guy who ’ s throwing all these kids in the water .”
That ’ s what I ’ m getting at in this book . So often we get stuck in a cycle of reaction . We ’ re constantly putting out fires and responding to emergencies , and that cycle becomes self-perpetuating , because every minute spent reacting to a problem is a minute not spent preventing it . We can spend our whole lives in that mode of reaction unless we consciously shift our focus upstream .
P : Do you have a favorite example of a switch from a downstream to upstream thinking that yielded especially impressive results ? H : I was struck by the story of Interface , a public company . They made carpet out of nylon ( a petroleum product ), which meant that were making products out of fossil fuels using the energy supplied by fossil fuels — a double whammy of environmental degradation . But the CEO Ray Anderson , late in his career , had this searing realization : How will I be remembered ? What if my legacy is that I made a lot of money polluting the earth ? And so he changes everything . He demands that Interface change its business to produce zero environmental impact . Zero ! People thought he was nuts . But to a large extent , he succeeded . Ray Anderson ’ s epiphany changed an industry . It shows us what ’ s possible with a simple shift in mindset .
P : “ Problem Blindness ” is a concept you discuss at length in Upstream . Why does problem blindness happen in the first place , and what shifts in thinking are key to overcoming it ? H : Problem blindness says that we can ’ t fix a problem if we can ’ t see it . Sometimes a problem is so ubiquitous that we stop perceiving it as a “ problem .” It just seems like an inevitable part of life . Think of sexual harassment in the workplace in the 60s and 70s . It was so widespread that women were often encouraged to just roll with it ! Often the first step , in moving upstream , is to overcome problem blindness by opening our eyes and reminding ourselves : Hey , we have agency here . We don ’ t have to accept this state of affairs as “ natural .”
P : Spa leaders are currently wearing many hats as they navigate through talent shortages and often find themselves “ tunneling ” to keep things moving forward . What are some ways that spa leaders can change their thought process and stop “ tunneling ?” H : Tunneling ( a term from the book ) refers to a lack of bandwidth to solve problems . In a tunnel , you try to make your way forward . If you hit a problem , you just want to work around it in and get it behind you so you can keep moving . You don ’ t have the time or energy to ask ,“ Why did that problem happen ? Could I solve it at a systemic level ?” You just keep going . Tunneling is very familiar , I suspect , to most of us . But it ’ s a terrible trap . Because when you work around problems , two things happen : One , you allow yourself to keep moving forward , in the moment ; and two , you doom yourself to encoun-
“ So often we get stuck in a cycle of reaction . We ’ re constantly putting out fires and responding to emergencies , and that cycle becomes self-perpetuating …”
JANUARY 2022 n PULSE 13