Thought Leadership Series
A Conversation with Dan Heath: Problem Blindness
School Administrator, November 2020

Dan Heath is the co-author of four bestselling books.
This second installment in School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series captures the thinking of book author Dan Heath in a conversation with Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent in Fall Creek, Wis., a school community with 850 students located 90 minutes east of St. Paul, Minn.

Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and the co-author (with brother Chip Heath) of four bestsellers on the psychology of leadership practices and strategies. He appeared at the 2015 AASA national conference as a General Session speaker and is a past contributor to School Administrator magazine.

In Sanfelippo’s interview, which focuses on Heath’s most recent book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, the author talked about “problem blindness,” gaining more accurate perceptions of reality and setting a goal that motivates others for action.

Heath opens Upstream with a venerable parable that’s attributed to various originating sources to frame his work. The parable depicts two friends at the edge of a river when suddenly they see a child in the river. Both jump in to rescue the child. Then they see another child floating in the stream and save that child. Then another child and another and another are floating down the stream. At one point one of the friends exits the water and starts running alongside the river up the stream. His partner, still in the water, saving the children floating his way says, "Where are you going? I need help saving all of these children." The friend responds, "I'm going upstream to stop the person throwing all of these kids in the water!" (Heath relates this parable in a one-minute video.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 
Joe Sanfelippo: Before we get into talking about Upstream, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank you for your book Power Moments because it’s been game-changing for me as a leader. It’s the idea that you’re in a position, as a leader, to help people create movements that are going to last a lifetime as opposed to “Oh, I went to this school and this is what it kind of was. I don’t really remember.” These are opportunities for us, right? 

But it’s also been game changing for my family because we had anticipated this situation where we would have to move every three or four years — that’s just what it was for superintendents. And, to be able to be here for 10 years, a lot of it has to do with transparency and the creation of the moments and the ideas that we put out there that make the things that we do stick with other people when it comes to how they talk about us. So as a side note, thank you.

Dan Heath: Thank you for saying that. That means a lot. 

Sanfelippo: In a world where educators have continued to do things the way they’ve always done them and then have been upset with the results, we know there’s got to be a better way. Like your books Made to Stick and Power of Moments, I believe Upstream could have that same impact in schools when it comes to trying to solve problems before they actually occur, getting out in front and thinking about things differently. 

Heath: My favorite quote in the book is from Paul Batalden, a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Dartmouth, who says every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. That’s one of those quotes that will worm its way into your brain, forcing you to reframe the way you interpret results. If you have a consistent pattern of performance, whether it’s a good pattern or a bad pattern, you have a system designed to yield those results. 

Several of the stories in the book are about organizations that realized to their horror they had unwittingly built a machine to yield bad results. One of my favorite stories was about Chicago Public Schools which, at one point, faced a high school graduation rate of 52.4 percent. What’s even worse is that the poor graduation rate had actually begun to seem inevitable to many people in the district.  They’d think, “You know, students’ lives are complicated, and they come from complex backgrounds and, yes, it’s regrettable that we only graduate half our students, but, shrug, that’s just the way the world is.” I call that “problem blindness” — the feeling that a problem is natural or inevitable, that there’s nothing you can do about it. 

To awaken ourselves to what we can do differently, the first step is to have people realize, “Hey, this problem that we’ve come to take for granted — must we take it for granted? What if we lived in a world where it didn’t exist?” That was the first step in Chicago and in other places.

Sanfelippo: Upstream thinking is about trying to change things, to mix it up — get out in front of the problem. 

Heath: That’s exactly it. The parable at the beginning of the book captures the trap that so many people in education feel, which is that you can’t stop rescuing the kids from the river. If you don’t shift upstream to keep those kids from being tossed into the river, you will spend your entire life fishing kids from the river. That’s the trap: We can’t shift upstream, but if we don’t, we’re trapped in a ridiculous, all-emergency-all-the-time mindset.

The first question the book addresses is: How do we escape that trap? When I think about it through the lens of schools and school administration, basically there are three answers.

One is that you do more work initially. There’s an initial push. In the daylight hours, you fish kids out of the river, then you moonlight with some upstream forays. 

I have two young daughters, and the process of getting their shoes on and ready to leave the house is a Whole Thing. I suspect parents can relate to this. In any one instance, it’s always going to be faster for me to just put their shoes on, right? Always. Yet if I’m ever going to have the hope that I can stop putting on their shoes, then at some point, I’ve got to start doing the harder work of teaching them to put their own shoes on. Downstream is fast, but upstream is permanent.

So that’s the first way out of the downstream trap: Stage an initial push to get ourselves out of emergency mode. 

The second solution is that we can start small. 

One of the stories in the book is about a Harvard Ph.D. candidate who shadowed nurses and found that their day was consumed by problem solving. They were constantly working around unexpected problems: medication that wasn’t available or equipment that was malfunctioning. They always had to scramble around and improvise solutions. They actually prided themselves on those skills, that resourcefulness. They didn’t need to run to the boss for answers; they could handle things themselves. 

From one perspective, that’s admirable. From another perspective, though, notice that they’re just fishing kids out of the river. They’re stuck in firefighting mode — you find a problem, you work around it — because if you don’t get to the systemic level of work, your situation never changes. You’re dealing with those same problems the next week. In fact, the researcher found that there was not one instance, in all of her shadowing of nurses, where the nurses engaged in systemic-level problem solving. 
 Joe Sanfelippo is superintendent in Fall Creek, Wis., home to 850 students.

Sanfelippo: So what’s the solution to that? 

Heath: In hospitals and health systems, they figured out that they could start small by giving the nurses an opportunity to escape that trap for a few precious minutes every day. They call it a “safety huddle.” They bring together doctors and nurses and other staffers and everyone reviews safety near-misses from the day prior: patients who almost got the wrong dose of medication, or a procedure that almost went wrong, or recurring problems that they’ve spotted. It might be a quick 20-minute meeting. But that brief escape from firefighting mode often can be enough to start making progress at solving problems rather than merely reacting to them. 

The third solution is to follow the motivation. One of the lessons that surprised me in writing the book was that downstream (reactive) work is an obligation. When the house is on fire, it’s going to be put out. When a tornado spins through a city and destroys property and hurts people, there’s going to be rebuilding effort. We’re obliged to act.

By contrast, upstream work — preventive work — is often chosen. Upstream work is a kind of enlightened volunteer activity, in the sense that it’s probably not in the explicit job description of any of the people who will do the work.

Administrators must honor that spirit. If you’re thinking, “How do I get my people to get out of the trap of firefighting? How do I get them thinking upstream?” then go where their enthusiasm is. Because this is “above and beyond” work. Figure out what they care about. What problem would your faculty kill to solve? If 20 percent of the faculty members would agree to put in an extra hour or two a week to work on some problem, maybe that’s the place to start, with the motivation being the fuel for the work. 

Sanfelippo: It’s interesting that you say that because our faculty did a take on that. We had a lot of sophomores who were falling behind and getting into their junior year having to retake a class or didn’t have as many options for electives because we’re a really small school and don’t offer a ton of electives. 

A group of six faculty members were interested in why this was happening, so they started with the freshman group and figured out what was getting them to a place where they were already falling behind as sophomores and took that on as their mission. What happened was a collaborative effort within the group to work specifically with freshmen on a regular basis. Their conversations ended up being specific about kids and specific about process and making sure that every student had an adult who was there for them in some regard. 

We definitely saw results with that, which was great. But the group owned the whole process and that was, to me, truly important — that they had ownership. It wasn’t, “Joe told me to, so now we have to.” 

Heath: That’s it. That spirit of ownership is actually a big theme in the book. Going back to this distinction between upstream and downstream: The ownership of a downstream problem is often clear. If your house is on fire, then it’s the firefighters’ job to own it, right? But upstream work is often much more ambiguous, and a lot of times, as I said, people nominate themselves to deal with it. 

In Chicago Public Schools’ work to improve their graduation rate, it’s not like there was a discrete team of people who were the “increase graduation rates team.” It had to be people throughout the district — teachers and administrators — saying, “Yes, these students’ lives are complicated. Yes, they face disadvantages, but we want them to graduate. We’re going to do something about it.” 

I think that CPS has lessons for any school district and, frankly, any major organization — business, government or otherwise. Let me tell you what happened at CPS. 

From a 52.4 percent graduation rate in 1998 to today, they have increased the graduation rate by about 25–26 percentage points in a district of 300,000 students. Talk about a major challenge. This is exactly the kind of situation where people would be inclined to slump their shoulders and say, “Well, gosh, huge urban school district, funding challenges; nothing’s ever going to change.” It did change. I point to three factors, in particular, that allowed them to change, and these three factors are nearly universal. 

One is they got early warning of the problem. They figured out that the 9th-grade year, in particular — and partially this is because CPS is on a K-8, 9-12 split, so they don’t really have a middle school — is a real whopper of a transition. They figured out they could predict, with 80 percent accuracy, who in the 9th grade was going to drop out and who wasn’t. That early warning extended the runway of action, and that’s true of all kinds of problems: If you can see it coming, you’ve got more levers of action or levers of influence. 

The second thing they did goes back to that quote that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. They figured out that aspects of their own school system were sabotaging kids. My favorite example of this relates to discipline. This is the late ’90s, the era of zero tolerance. In those days, kids would get slapped with two-week suspensions for little stuff. They shoved each other in the hallway; both kids were sent out for two weeks. What we know now is that if you suspend kids who are on the borderline for two weeks, they don’t recover. They come back, but they don’t catch up. They fail classes. Failing classes in the 9th grade is one of the most direct factors that keeps kids from graduating. 

Did any of those assistant principals who were doling out suspensions have any inkling that they might have just doomed that student to never graduating from high school? Of course not. But this is the thing about systems: You’ve got to get really close to them before you understand their true consequences. So they fixed a lot of those discipline policies to be more graduation-friendly. 

The third element that we can use for interventions of many different flavors is proximity. In many of the success stories I studied, the leaders got so close to the problem that they were navigating the issues on a person-by-person basis. At CPS, the engine of improvement was what they called the “freshman success team.” In each high school, faculty members from across disciplines would meet once or twice a month and go student by student, using a list prioritized by who was in the most trouble of ”off-track.” They were using a metric called Freshman on Track, which many districts use. Then the team members would talk about each student. Okay, what’s the story with Kevin? Well, last time we met, Kevin was failing math, but we got him some extra tutoring and he got a C on his last exam. That’s great, he’s making progress. What about Keisha? Well, we learned that every morning, Keisha has to walk her little sister to school, and that’s making her late almost every day. So we’re going to try to get her switched out of English first period into P.E., so if she ends up failing it, she doesn’t fail a core course, which is one of the components of Freshman on Track. 

Student by student, school by school, meeting by meeting, they started to make slow progress on these metrics. Four years later, those students they’d kept on track as freshmen started graduating in higher and higher numbers. 

There is heroism in that story: the scale of success, the number of years it took, the degree of complexity involved and the fact that, ultimately, what was required was for a group of people who had been doing things a different way to stand up and say, “This problem,” in their case the poor graduation rate, “is so intolerable that we will not accept it anymore, and we’re going to change, and we’re going to get upstream.” 

 Dan Heath calls shrugging off the way things are "problem blindness."
Sanfelippo: Because my school district is 850 kids, all under one roof, I can get into any classroom whenever I want. At the same time, when you’re talking about school districts like Chicago, or even like Green Bay, Wis., when you’re talking about 20,000 kids, you can’t be in all of those spaces at all times. You end up getting a narrow view of what’s happening. Our job as leaders is not only to empower those around us, but also to take the pulse of where they are at decision making time. 

Heath: How have you found it possible to get more accurate views of what’s going on in the district?

Sanfelippo: The biggest thing is that you have to carve time out of your day to say, “I’m going to be invested in this process, I’m going to be in classrooms, I’m going to be in hallways, and I’m going to have conversations with people, just to make sure that those things are continuing.” They can be focused conversations and sometimes they’re just what we call Seinfeld conversations — conversations about nothing. You walk in just to make sure that you’re still connected to that group. If you’re there, you develop this social capital for when something goes wrong, And something will always go wrong, but if you’ve developed enough social capital that they know that you’re not making decisions from your desk, it changes the way people view those decisions. 

Heath: One of the themes in the book is if we’re going to prevent problems, we have to get closer to them. We can’t help a million people or a thousand or a hundred until we understand how to help one. 

As administrators, we get used to measuring progress using a spreadsheet, and there are good reasons for that. But we can’t understand the problem through the spreadsheet. We’ve got to get proximate. We’ve got to get granular. One of the lessons from CPS is that we can’t really understand how to overhaul systems until we have absorbed how individual human beings are pummeled or punished or affected by them. That means getting out there. 

Sanfelippo: Because it comes up with us a lot from a district perspective, I want to ask you how district leaders can operate with this mindset of being, as you write, “impatient for action but patient for outcomes.” We live in this society where people want stuff right away. From your perspective, how can people stay in that mindset?

Heath: It’s tricky, and part of it relates to a distinction drawn by my friend Joe McCannon, a health care expert. He talks about the difference between using “data for inspection” and using “data for learning.” 

What he means by data for inspection is data that’s used to judge people or reward them or punish them. This is so familiar that it seems we can’t imagine data being used differently. For instance, the state test results come back and we immediately feel elation or disappointment, and we start scheming about how to do better next year. 

By contrast, McCannon says data for learning is about giving a group of people the fresh, real-time data it needs to improve. The data comes without a sense of judgment. It’s like you’re given the steering wheel and you’re given the GPS navigation, and you’re turned loose to work. There’s no boss standing over you, and nobody’s wagging their finger at you. 

This is what they did at CPS, by the way. A critical enabling factor in their success was the fact that they armed these freshmen success teams with week-by-week, student-by-student data. Readers from outside education probably shrugged, “Oh well, you know, that sounds obvious.” But people inside education can appreciate how difficult that would be to make possible. 

I was talking to one of the CPS principals who said when they started this work, teachers would enter students’ grades into the IT system, and then they literally could not access them again. She said it was like a roach motel: The data would go in, but it never came out. They had to keep a separate gradebook on paper for their records. 

That’s where they started. They ended in a place where, every week, they’re armed with information about Kevin and Keisha, to use the hypotheticals from earlier, and what their attendance was the previous week and their grades to date in each class. Think about the difference in those two scenarios: the roach motel versus the real-time data. It’s like driving a car completely blind versus driving a car with windows and mirrors and Google Maps to guide you. 

To lead upstream action, we’ve got to ask: How will we know whether we’re making meaningful progress? What data will we consult to confirm our success? And what goal will be sufficiently motivating to the people involved such that, even if it takes us three years to really put points on the scoreboard, it will still be worth the effort?

If those two ingredients are present — a goal that’s motivating for action and data that tells you’re getting closer to the goal — that’s the recipe for long-term success. 

Sanfelippo: You’re absolutely right. Keeping everybody invested in that process rings true in the current situation with the pandemic, in that everybody wants to know what the end result is going to be. Are schools going to open? Is it going to be a different process? Is it going to be all virtual? And, honestly, as we sit here, we’re a month and a half away from school, and we don’t know. 

Heath: Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile said that one of the top motivators for people is making progress on a meaningful goal. That doesn’t mean fast progress. It means that if you have a goal that speaks to you and you can see that your work is contributing to forward movement, that can be as motivating as a raise, as motivating as praise from the boss or vacation time.

What we really want, as human beings, is to do something that matters. And upstream work is really the only engine for permanent improvement in schools and communities. 

Sanfelippo: I agree. It’s not about getting out in front of the problem and saying that out loud. It’s thinking in a way that we can. Sometimes we think, “Wow, I’ve got so much going on. I’ve got to make sure I get this, this and this done.” Are you dedicating any of your time to looking at systems you have in place and determining whether they are efficient?

The first question gets answered, but the second question, are they efficient? Well, no, if we throw more of the same at it as opposed to, as you said, going upstream and thinking about where that problem began. 

Heath: It’s like Expedia. In 2012, a guy named Ryan O’Neal figured out that Expedia was fielding 20 million calls a year for people who were just requesting a copy of their itinerary that they’ve booked online. Everybody’s jaw dropped when they saw that number. 

The people in the call center were measured on how quickly they could field a customer’s request for an itinerary. So the game was, “Can I go from three minutes to two minutes and 50 seconds to two minutes and 40 seconds?” And they were succeeding. They were getting more efficient, right? The system was getting better at what it had been designed to do. 

But of course there’s a better solution: Not responding faster to the calls, but ensuring that customers get their itineraries in the first place! That’s the upstream intervention. Once the Expedia team turned its attention upstream – for instance, by ensuring that itineraries weren’t caught in spam folders, and by giving customers self-service tools to retrieve their itineraries — they very quickly whittled the volume of calls from 20 million to basically zero.
That’s a problem that you see again and again inside organizations: We encourage people to get faster and more efficient at addressing problems that, in a wiser world, would never have existed at all. 

I think that happens a lot in school, too. We feel like we’re being really efficient at classroom management or curriculum design and we’re really just kind of recycling something or looking at it from a different lens. We’re really not impacting it as much if we were getting to the root of what’s going on, getting more people invested in that process, getting closer to that process and having somebody say, “Why are all these kids in my office? What’s going on here?” Then you have a better understanding of how to move the group forward. 
Next in Line
The School Administrator Thought Leadership Series resumes in January with an interview of John Kotter, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School and a preeminent authority on leadership for change, by Larry Nyland, retired superintendent in Seattle, Wash.