So much of every day is spent putting out fires (hopefully mostly of the metaphorical variety), that it can be hard to realize the patterns and causes of what we do. Add to this that we often use the wrong metrics to measure the effectivity of our work, and it is not surprising that we are always. so. busy.
At work, we move from meeting to meeting (all virtual now, but seemingly more frequent) making action plans that are interrupted by the constant emails, texts, and calls, many of which are repetitive requests for information that could be shared on a FAQ on the website. At home, we will pour cups of milk for our kids for months before we realize that they could help themselves if only we moved the cups to a lower shelf.
Upstream pushes us to look beyond what can be done to solve immediate problems to see what is causing the issue, and work to prevent the problems from happening in the first place. There are some compelling examples of paradigm shifts that have happened by changing the approach. There are also examples of unintended consequences that have arisen from well- meaning upstream interventions. There is also a clear understanding that it is generally harder to prove that something did not happen as the result of the work you did than it is to show that you reacted to a problem and solved it.
While these upstream interventions can be slower and more difficult to measure, the impact over time can be significant. If we are seeking to work smarter, we must focus on the prevention of problems through systems change, rather than on the rapid and repetitive solving of the problems as they arise.