Be Proactive

Be Proactive

Best-selling author Dan Heath addresses problem-solving from a new and effective perspective with his usual wit and insight into human nature.

Academic and social entrepreneurship researcher Dan Heath shines a spotlight on how to stave off widespread crises before they happen. Heath provides valuable insights into how human tendencies – including problem blindness, avoiding responsibility, and “tunneling” when feeling overwhelmed – can contribute to making bad situations worse. Heath argues that prevention is more effective than cure. His prescriptive book offers essential reading for policy makers, leaders and anyone seeking to solve the world’s intractable problems.

This Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller was named Book of the Month by the Financial Times, whose reviewer wrote that Heath provides “… a substantial feel that some more superficial problem-solving manuals lack.” And Publishers Weekly wrote, “Heath observes it’s easy to become accustomed to putting out fires instead of looking for the spark that’s igniting them…This is a pragmatic guide for those seeking big changes on either an individual or organizational level.”

Mitigate Downstream Disasters

Heath states this theme at the outset: identifying the source of problems enables you to mitigate their effects. Downstream responses are reactive. Upstream efforts are proactive.

What the world needs now is a quieter breed of hero, one actively fighting for a world in which rescues are no longer required.Dan Heath

Heath details how people fall into a cycle of response that deals with issues as they arise rather than addressing the system(s) that caused the problems. He acknowledges that looking upstream for causes is difficult and more than one may exist. Downstream rescues are more heroic, visible and easier to measure, and thus more seductive, Heath suggests, while upstream victories appear mostly in data and policy.

Heath cites problem blindness as pivotal, because no one can solve a problem they can’t recognize. He points out that people who see a problem but decide it is not their issue to solve impede upstream thinking, as do conflicting interests. What Heath calls tunneling occurs when you feel overwhelmed and cannot prioritize or plan processes; tunneling confines you to short-term thinking. With a certain irony, Heath notes that people who manage well in poorly designed systems may gain the reputation of heroes, but their heroism stems from system failure.

Many problems reside within systems, and people adapt, Heath reveals, to their existence rather than confront them. He believes people can fix those systems if they consider data for the real story. A system’s design intends for that system to remain powerful and permanent, which, Heath explains, makes change difficult.

Moving upstream requires cohesive action, even, Heath underscores, among stakeholders who don’t share goals.

In planning upstream interventions, we’ve got to look outside the lines of our own work. Zoom out and pan from side to side.Dan Heath

To find a worthy leverage point from which to enact change, Heath recommends determining what approach offers the best value, which needn’t equate to saving money. In health care, for example, he tells how few insist on a return on investment from preventive strategies. Heath argues that providing homes for the homeless, for example, should not be subject to this test when, say, heart bypass surgery isn’t.

Even the best intentions can fail, Heath accepts, when interventions fail to anticipate unexpected consequences in complex systems. He cites the “cobra effect,” which rears its ugly head when the solution exacerbates the problem. During colonial times, for example, a British administrator sought to reduce the cobras in Delhi by offering a reward for every dead cobra. Heath discloses that people bred cobras to claim the reward. The administrator canceled the reward, breeders released their now valueless cobras resulting in more snakes than ever on the streets of Delhi, Heath relates.


Heath demonstrates great common sense insight when he points out that measuring the value of problem prevention is difficult because no direct cost-benefit correlation links the intervention with the result. He tells how preventive measures – clean water, sewage systems, antibiotics and vaccines – benefit everyone, and yet public health receives only 2.5% of the US health budget. When Heath notes that downstream interventions are measurable but upstream interventions don’t reveal their value right away, this may bring to mind people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine.

Heath makes a fascinating and revelatory point: When people don’t experience the worst-case scenario because systems in place mitigate it, they may not believe the threat was credible.

Organizations are constantly dealing with urgent short-term problems. Planning for speculative future ones is, by definition, not urgent.Dan Heath

Preparing for a major catastrophe requires practice, but often, Heath understates wildly, agencies and governments prove shortsighted, fall prey to tunneling and favor downstream interventions.


Heath asserts that any one person can identify a problem and seek upstream solutions. If you join community efforts to effect change, he counsels patience for outcomes and reminds you that moving upstream demands cooperation, focus, optimism and determination.

Practical Insight

As demonstrated in his earlier bestsellers – co-written with Chip Heath – Dan Heath’s solutions usually stem from his worthy understanding of human nature, how people prefer the easiest road and how governments and institutions seem to specialize in downstream thinking when the alternative would serve them far better. Heath is an optimist, however; in fact, he’s almost an idealist, with his fervent belief in people’s – and institutions’ – ability to recognize flaws in their perceptions. He demonstrates less faith in people’s and institutions’ willingness to change their actions even when they do see those flaws, however. Hence, Heath’s closing exhortation to all readers to take it upon themselves to think upstream for the betterment of society. Given his low-key, intelligent, convincing prose, perhaps many will heed that call.

Dan Heath co-wrote with Chip Heath the bestsellers Made to Stick; The Power of Moments; Switch; and Decisive.

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