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Managing Success in the Upstream



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Ascert aug 2020 - 1

Most people in companies know when something does not look right. Intuitively, they can recognize flaws in a strategy or a process. They know that they have problems in areas of their organization or when something is not working optimally. But, in many instances, they either ignore the situation or they chose not to do anything at all.


Because they are organized to neglect their awareness. This problem is endemic in many large organizations today. I call it “Organized Neglect.”

I define organized neglect as:

“A conscious decision to ignore potential failure points in business systems due to the antecedents of risk-reward elements of employee performance measurement.”

Yea …that is a mouthful. But this is a definition that encompasses a wide range of causality and one that a researcher can use to delve deeper into this troubling trend. A more simplified definition is that “people focus on the things that they are measured on and ignore everything else.”

That last part is important. Companies that organize their functional areas in a manner that has a specialized focus often create an atmosphere of organized neglect. Performance measurements are based on a set of activities related to that specialization, and activities that stray from that set of measured activities are not rewarded; often they are punished.

In many instances, efforts that fall outside of those boundaries do not produce a favorable risk/reward ratio for the employee. An employee that is a devotee to capitalism will look for ways to maximize a return for their effort. In situations of organized neglect, to meddle in areas that they are not rewarded diminishes the maximization of the value formula because they get no extrinsic reward.

This creates an environment where employees see only that which is in front of them and miss that which is going on around them. Focus is both an enemy and an ally. It can accelerate work and make it more efficient, but it puts blinders on people. And blinders for racehorses.

There is an old saying that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In an organization that employees organized neglect, individuals that do not interact across functional silos can experience the loss of opportunity for exponential gain in performance. These companies throttle their potential resulting in the best case of performance that is mediocre. If they are large, they will likely survive because their size can almost always absorb small and medium failures. They have chosen to survive versus thrive and will never reach their full potential.

What is the solution? One powerful solution is creating an environment that is active in the “upstream.”

There is a parable that is popular in the public health profession that I think does a good job of describing what an upstream focus looks like. It goes like this.

A woman is enjoying a picnic at her favorite spot along the bank of a river. Suddenly, she sees a kid floating down the river and struggling in the current. She jumps in the river and rescues that kid.

A short time later she sees another kid struggling and she rescues him. This scenario plays repeatedly until finally, she asks herself, “who is throwing all of these kids in the river?”

Ascert aug 2020 - 2

The moment she asked herself that question, her mind shifts from being reactionary, saving the kids, to a more proactive state, figuring out how to stop the kids from falling in upstream. There is much more to the story as she goes to figure out what is occurring upstream. But I think you get the picture. Most people work in the downstream instead of focusing on upstream activities (prevent the kid from falling in the river).

Her is another example that is a little closer to home for me as an Ironman triathlete. When I train it does not matter whether it is 1-hour or a 7-hour long training, I do the same things before and after I train. I stretch!

I spend 20-minutes, at a minimum, stretching before training, and 20-minutes at a minimum stretching post-training. Many amateur athletes will not take the time to do this, because after all, it is another 40-minutes added to the workout! They do not consider that stretching could help injuries from occurring during training and that these injuries could be costly, painful, and potentially take them away from being productive or doing the things they enjoy while they heal.

Here is an example of a common upstream failure in business. In companies that produce software to run their internal systems, there is a frightening statistic. Here it is. Eighty-three percent of software developers do not like to test. This fear leads 80% of the companies to release software to beta sites without any type of testing at all!

They act like they are at the roulette table in Las Vegas and let it fly without testing. Scary right? In case you are wondering, I did not make this number up. The statistic is taken from a survey done by the US Department of Defense.

How could companies allow this to happen?

The answer is simple. They are “downstream” thinkers. They would rather their human capital spend time in areas that show tangible results. It is hard to show tangible results from testing when what you are doing is trying to ensure nothing bad happens. Fixing a problem that occurs is much more exciting, even heroic, than measuring the number of errors found and fixed in some code.

The shift to upstream thinking usually only occurs when an error is painful, and the decision is made to look for improvement. The seed of improvement is dissatisfaction. But the real question that business leaders should be asking is why should you wait to be dissatisfied before you improve?

Think about this, in the end, every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.

If you want greater success, more productivity, fewer problems in your organization you will look closely at how you measure your employee’s performance. I would never make light of what it takes to restructure an organization that has created a culture of organized neglect. It is a massive undertaking. But the start down that path is amazingly fast and simple. It begins with an awareness that shifting from a downstream thinker to an upstream thinker is necessary.

Once that shift occurs, you will begin to think and act differently. You’ll detect problems early, you will target leverage points in complex systems, you’ll find reliable ways to measure success, you’ll device new ways of cross-departmental collaboration, and finally, you’ll put this all together and embed your successes into systems to give them permanence in the organization.

If you are ready to leverage the power of upstream thinking, simply begin by looking at a problem in your organization. Map out the flow of every interaction and look as far upstream to either see the failure point or an area ripe for modification. Then, find a way within the organization to make the change that will prevent the downstream problem. Finally, commit to eradication any form of organized neglect in your organization.

Would you like to know more about upstream thinking? If you’re ready to dig a little deeper, click HERE to schedule a 15-minute phone call with me where you and I can explore possibilities in your organization.

And if you are ready to take this concept into the area of systems testing, Ascert has tools, technologies, processes, and over 30 years of experience that can help you to make a difference in your organization.

See you in the upstream.

Rich Greene

ascert may 2020

About the Author

Dr. Richard Greene, DBA, has more than 30 years of experience as a sales executive and testing professional. He is active in sports and is a 7-time Ironman finisher and ultra-distance open water Swimmer. Rich also has a passion for helping others to achieve peak performance in their personal and professional lives.

As a Sales Director at Ascert, he draws upon this passion for excellence to help companies realize their highest levels of efficiency and business potential. Using the industry’s leading technology from Ascert, his customers can achieve unprecedented levels of testing productivity and performance in their organizations.

Contact Rich at: or 415-339-8500 x5125