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Don’t Chase Crazy Part 2: Upstream Leadership

When I read Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath, I immediately connected this concept to school leadership. In the first part of the blog series, Don’t Chase Crazy, I communicated how school leaders are ‘chasing crazy’ more than ensuring learning on any given day in schools. In part 2, I want to connect the idea of chasing crazy to a new way of leading by changing how we think about addressing and dealing with problems. Upstream and downstream thinking are two different approaches that school leaders can take when tackling issues and making decisions.


Upstream thinking refers to addressing issues at their root cause. It’s proactive, preventative, and focused on long-term solutions. It involves looking at the big picture and identifying the underlying causes of problems rather than addressing symptoms. As a result, upstream has an upfront investment for long-term sustainable outcomes. Upstream thinking also requires a different mindset and approach.


Downstream thinking focuses on addressing the symptoms of problems. It’s reactive and focuses on short-term solutions. It involves addressing the symptoms of problems rather than looking at the underlying causes and often involves quick fixes and a focus on immediate results. As a result, downstream is quick in implementation but repetitive in unwanted outcomes.


Here are two common examples of Upstream versus Downstream thinking in schools:

  • Improving student achievement:

    • Downstream thinking would involve implementing quick-fix solutions such as test-prep programs, tutoring, or hiring more teachers without addressing the root causes of low achievement.

    • Upstream Thinking requires addressing Tier 1 instruction in all classrooms and ensuring your school has a learner-centered culture. Much more challenging work for the leader but will eliminate the repeated challenges of low student achievement.

  • Challenging student behaviors:

    • Downstream thinking would include immediate punitive measures to consequence the behavior.

    • Upstream thinking and leading would focus on restorative approaches, including understanding the function of the behavior and building stronger relationships.

One of the critical benefits of upstream thinking is that it can lead to more sustainable and practical solutions. By addressing the root causes of problems, school leaders can create long-term change that will significantly impact student achievement and success. On the other hand, downstream thinking can lead to short-term gains, but the problems will likely reoccur.


So HOW do leaders lead with Upstream Thinking?

  • Campus leaders must meet weekly to reflect on the previous week and plan for the upcoming week and significant milestones. This weekly reflection helps leaders document the work and see if patterns or trends exist. Once a pattern exists, the team can determine the root cause to create an appropriate action plan. I have provided a template for this weekly leader reflection and root cause analysis.

  • Determine all the decisions and responsibilities critical to operating a successful school and outline the decision-making process using the RAPID model. This model uses the idea that there are roles people play in the decision-making process, but not all functions are equally important. For example, there is the role of the recommender, the part of agree, the persons responsible for implementing the decision, the roles of providing input, and the person ultimately accountable for the decision. Here is a template for schools to use to lead Upstream by clarifying the decision-making process.

In conclusion, school leaders must be aware of the difference between upstream thinking and downstream thinking and the impact of each approach. While both have their place, upstream thinking is more holistic, proactive, and practical to address complex problems and achieve long-term results. Upstream thinking requires leaders to take a step back, look at the big picture, and collaborate with other stakeholders to address the root causes of problems to keep from chasing crazy! Good luck out there, and stay in the UPSTREAM!!!


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