Here’s the difficulty.
What’s downstream is more often what looks measurable, or at least easiest to talk about. Behaviour, output, hours worked, jobs done, calls answered, sales made, targets reached.
What’s upstream – from which what’s downstream flows – often seems harder to talk about and harder to address:
The background culture and narratives of your organisation. The kind of person you are. How alive you and the people around you are willing to be. The conversations that are being had, and aren’t being had. People’s inner worlds of meaning, hope, doubt and longing. The quality of openness, courage, truthfulness people embody. The pervasive and often hidden effect of the inner critic. The background mood – fear, commitment, sincerity, cynicism, resentment.
What happens upstream profoundly shapes what happens downstream, but there’s no simple, predictable relationship between one and the other.
We’ve become terrified of working with what’s upstream because it’s not measurable and because we can’t establish a straightforward cause and effect connection with what emerges downstream.
Working with what’s upstream calls on us to face ourselves and others, to turn away from what we’re denying, to change ourselves rather than expecting everything else to change around us, to admit that we don’t know.
But more and more we want to control everything, to predict everything, to never be surprised or disturbed. And so we treat only what’s downstream as ‘real’ and dismiss what’s upstream as irrelevant.
And rather than face our fear and uncertainty, it leaves us failing to work in the place that could most address our concerns, and adopting dry, lifeless initiatives, change programmes, and measures instead.