“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

That sentence has me rivetted.

I’m reading Dan Heath’s Upstream, a readable and memorable take on systems thinking.

Dan Heath (and his brother Chip) have an uncanny knack of converting potentially bamboozling ideas into memorable ‘ah-hahs’.

They also have an unerring nose for choosing subjects that need unpacking. Look at their bookology:

Made to Stick (devising contagious messages)

Switch (designing change programs that work)

Decisive (how groups make better decisions)

The Power of Moments (what’s special about moments of personal change)

These titles are practically a stand-alone curriculum for change makers. 

Anyway, back to Upstream.

The title comes from a parable: ‘Stop rescuing drowning kids, instead go upstream and stop whoever is throwing them in the river.’

So, I’ve just read his pages about how Iceland tackled epidemic youth drunkenness.

“The first step, as in many upstream efforts, was to surround the problem by bringing together the people who could contribute to a solution – young people, parents, sports clubs,  police, policymakers, researchers, municipalities.” I love ‘surround the problem’.

The next step was a shift in thinking from “just say no” to “change communities in order to change kids’ behaviour”. You could call that ‘pivoting the mission’ from blaming individuals to fixing the system. 

And then, there was a critical role of academic research that identified risk factors for teenage substance abuse: having friends who drink or smoke, and lots of unstructured time to available to hang out with those friends. And also protective factors that reduced the risk: organised sports participation and spending time with parents. [Hey we parents could learn from that!]

Yes, our theories of change are often just sitting there in the academic literature!

And then, they incorporated a big hairy psychological insight “We shouldn’t fight teenagers instinct to get high. Instead we should aim to give them safer ways to get high.”

These insights generated a strategy with three main components.

• a national night time curfew (policing)

• parents groups in every school (community organising)

• a massive increase in funding for local sports organisations, including vouchers for families (funding and service delivery).

Notice that these components are diverse and adventurous – they pop out of broad and big thinking.

Behind the bigness are two vital states of mind – ‘yes we can’ and ‘it’s our responsibility’.

20 years later, the current generation of Icelandic teenagers don’t even remember when mass youth drunkenness was ever a thing.

Next is Dan’s story about US cities tackling homelessness, and the role of ‘data for learning’. We’re used to ‘data for supervision’ (how many people are homeless? how many people came to our workshop), but not ‘data for learning’ (where is person X sleeping doing tonight? why did farmer X not come to our workshop?). We are so used to collecting data for supervision, which is useless for program teams, that we fail to notice that we’re not collecting and reflecting on data that actually guides us. And that ‘data for learning’ is powerful when it’s about specific people, not policy (which so often just leads to gripe sessions).

So here are sound insights into ‘system mechanics’: surround the problem, take academic insights seriously, strategise fearlessly, and have a flow of people-centred ‘data for learning’.

We’re off to a good start. The next step is to get out the wrench and oxywelder and start rejigging the system that’s maintaining our problem. I’m going to read that part next.