“The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.” Native American Proverb (unattributed).

Image: https://pixabay.com/users/frankwinkler-64960/

In discussions with collaborators, clients, compadres, this phrase kept popping up. #Upstream. A curious phrase to use in business but as the Native American saying is that opens this post, water is a sacred and precious aspect of all life and so why wouldn’t we use such a pure metaphor regularly?

In this mechanical, metallic and combustible world of work we currently operate in, it strikes me we need a little more earth, air and water to balance the elements of our thinking in this fire approach we have to life, love and labour.

#Upstream is used in marketing terms like so:

The terms “upstream” and “downstream” refer to two different, but equally important, aspects of marketing. Upstream marketing is focused on strategy and the long-term market situation, while downstream marketing looks at tactics and supporting the company sales team. (https://smallbusiness.chron.com/upstream-downstream-activities-marketing-director-74470.html)

Strategy and the long term situation might get you going “oh another post on business strategy, no thanks”. Yet please bear with me because this is about the approach we as people take to the way we interact, operate and work with each other.

In a previous post, I talked about the power of Circles and how much we can connect to each other without the machine-like functioning of the power-based hierarchies of orthodox business structures. In many respects though, this hierarchical model gives us the perfect chance to look at the flow of work, decisions and ideas as a linear approach like the flowing of a stream.

The beginning of the stream starts in the glacier tipped mountains somewhere, builds into a river, turns into the mouth of an estuary and merges into the sea.

When we’re looking to use hydro-power from a powerful flowing force of a river; when we’re looking to build a dam to irrigate a barren aspect of our land, we know where #upstream is and we plan accordingly to harness that power.

So when we’re trying to solve business issues, forge relationships with people to be more comfortable in collaborating with them, or create a new venture are we only looking downstream?

We tend to view people, problems and possibilities from the starting point of now and into the downstream of the future. Missing out on a story, a channelling of energy and a clarity of purpose by overlooking #upstream.

Example 1: A restructuring by a senior leader. They come in and review the current customer needs, the current people in situ and the needs for the future (in this case; expansion). They shift people around, recalibrate the work and responsibilities and communicate with people their vision and wishes. Strong and stable leadership right? Wrong. Missing out COMPLETELY the source of what’s there now — which may not be perfectly aligned but has gotten things to the now. No looking #Upstream. The result? Dams holding back a force of nature. Dam breaches in undesirable ways, toxicity and stagnation. Evaporation.

Example 2: A big issue of administrative dysfunction with constant chasing, correcting and chastising of people doing their best with high-profile work. Constant looking downstream at product delivery, marketing and consumption of the product. No look #upstream at who the people are doing the work; what they bring in and come with; what historical context gives them confidence in how this person operates and needs to operate. More pointless and frustrating administration than needed; incompetence and low confidence; challenges, criticism and overt management of the “situation”. Unpleasant experience getting in the way of glorious achievement and fulfilment.

Both examples prove one thing, we’re too obsessed with looking forward without seeking counsel from the past.

Facebook’s use of data, ads and subsequent Cambridge Analytica scandal looked downstream only at revenue and use of people’s data. No #upstream look at what gave rise to the availability of such data and whether this sanctioned the way others could access and use such information.

Yet Bext360(https://www.bext360.com/about-us/) is a classic example of a company looking #Upstream. In the supply chain of coffee producing, the grower of the commodity is often the lowest beneficiary of the value of this product. What Bext360 are doing, is to look at the Blockchain and Machine Learning to bring the value immediately #upstream to the grower. Amazing computational power scans every coffee cherry when thrown into the bucket of a robotic assessment device — assessing the quality of the cherry and therefore the immediate cost (based on dynamic market pricing and the quality of this batch). If agreed, the Blockchain is then used to pay the grower immediately and his other costs like labour, land rent and so on. Bext360 then take the coffee beans through the supply chain safe that an immutable record is produced assuring the consumer of the final product — the cup of coffee. Other certifications in the coffee growing world like FairTrade are of course, useful but the grower still has to have faith in the downstream market being fair and paying them on time.

#Upstream thinking is really where this innovation has its power. Not just in the computational power and the use of secure economics, but in going to the very start of where a challenge originated from. To the glacial stream.

This post, therefore, urges us to be more #Upstream in our thinking, approach and our creation and use of solutions.

How far #upstream should you go? It depends. On how much you realise the need to go to the start of the stream rather than the glacial tip. Following the trail of something requires a mixture of insight and imagination but it’s also perhaps the start of using more evidence than that immediately in front of you.

#Upstream for a new member of your team is to find out who they are, what they’re all about, what they love and loathe, how they describe their moments of confidence and uncertainty, how they want you to be with them.

#Upstream for a team you inherit and think about a newer way to position them is to explore them individually and collectively. Then look at the flow of work and its influencing factors and then how you overlay one onto the other (People & Skills to Work & Process).

#Upstream for a new product and innovation is to understand what caused you to even think about a new thing to solve that problem. Which doesn’t usurp the Design Thinking method of starting with empathy with the people (user) of your product/service; it’s the #upstream element of what their issue is before you’ve even nailed their specific elements to how they’re living, working or learning.

Futurologists often talk about 4 elements to how the future is envisioned: Data; Scenarios; Asymmetries and History. The past. #Upstream. Of course, with something completely new it’s difficult to look to the past for how things played out. Yet, we can always look for the nearest phenomenon and epoch moment to help us understand the most comparable. So there is an #Upstream to most, if not all, things.

In the world of unpredictable occurrences, the appearance of ‘black swans’, the mystifying surge in polarised views; we’re perhaps not looking #Upstream enough to the causality of such things. The incidents, when aggregated become the surging river. Perhaps instead of diving in, and breathlessly trying to forge ahead in the swirling torrent, we go upstream where it’s calmer, clearer and easier to appreciate how to use that power in creating a solution. Knowing the state of the white-water will help us build a kayak rather than a bridge. A more agile approach to navigating choppy waters rather than a huge steamer that takes forever to build and does nothing but pollute in its direction of travel.

#Upstream is a place where we can go before we think about the transformation we are being invited to consider. Now is important, yet the creation of now has a story we would be wise to understand.

I’ll leave you with this quote using history as an #upstream approach:

“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
Edmund Burke

I hope to see more of you #upstream.