Imagine you and a friend are enjoying a picnic when suddenly you hear a scream. A child is drowning. The two of you dive into the river and save the child. No sooner do you swim ashore than the sounds of another drowning child summon you both back. After rescuing that child, you hear the screams of another child and another, all being swept downstream by the river. You are surprised to see your friend leave.

“Where are you going?” you ask. He answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

This parable, commonly attributed to Irving Zola, serves as the opening to a new book by Dan Heath. Its title is the same as that of this article. That simple story reveals a compelling truth: We often spend far too much time handling the results of a problem and too little time solving the root causes of that problem.

I think of that book often when I run across the following three characters. These are not characters in the book, but rather, they are names I have developed on my own for some of the people you and I meet each day.

The Four-Letter Word User

I have been part of many phone calls where the problem was a communication failure higher up in the organization. I point out the “upstream” problem that caused the issue. I usually suggest the conversation be reported up the line to the person who can actually fix the problem. More often than not, I’m met with a four-letter word… “just.”

“I’m just the receptionist,” the person says. “I’m just the repairman,” says another. That one four-letter word turns a noble role into a powerless rut. “I’m just…” is the enemy of progress.

Those who answer the phone or see the customer face-to-face serve as the front line. They are the connection point between the valued customer and the executive whose company depends on keeping customers. The common questions they field “downstream” serve to highlight the problems the executive could examine “upstream.”

The Job-Description Specialist

This person is the first cousin of the Four-Letter Word User. You recognize this person by the frequent use of the phrase, “It’s not my job.” It’s the start of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

When people offer creative solutions based on their knowledge of the organization, smart people begin to notice and value their input. Consequently, when it’s time to hand out promotions requiring the ability to see the “upstream” problem and apply some creative thought, guess who gets the nod? The Job-Description Specialist gets left out and doesn’t have a clue as to why.

The Busy Bee

This person knows a problem exists. But don’t ask this person to do anything towards solving it. The “Busy Bee” is “too busy” handling the unending stream of problems. There’s no time left to figure out how this unending stream could be prevented.

Take Time to Save Time

What are the poorly-designed systems that cause you misery on a daily basis? The world is hungry for people who can see the same problem everyone else sees and devise the prevention  nobody else has explored. And if you think your boss doesn’t care about good ideas, give it a try anyway. Who knows? He or she may have just read this article.

Ray Sidney-Smith and I discussed Upstream on a recent episode of Productivity Book Group. Listen to the episode here.