A Story We’ve Been Telling A Lot Recently…

It’s “planning season” and that means leaders in companies across the country are locking themselves in small rooms together for two days to hash out plans for next year, budget implications, goals and priorities. The really ambitious organizations are will attempt to define a vision, mission and purpose to guide the strategy and planning, and the best organizations will look out as far as ten years to craft “phased” plans for meeting audacious goals. These organizations are special – because they are willing to go “upstream” in order to have the most downstream impact.

We have been in several of these planning sessions over the last two months, and if you were there with us, you would have heard us tell this story (shared with us by Chief Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court in the state of Oregon) – we call it “Saving Babies”.

Two fishermen are standing in a river fishing one day when all of a sudden one of the fishermen sees a basket coming down the river and it starts to teeter a little bit and a little water slops into it. The fisherman is curious so he wades out a bit further, reaches for the basket and looks inside. He exclaims, “Oh my gosh! There’s a baby in the basket!” As he starts to move the basket toward the shoreline to rescue the baby his fellow fisherman see another basket coming down the river. So he rushes in to grab the second basket but as he is moving out to it two more baskets come into sight. And before long there are baskets and baskets of babies flowing downstream and they are working really hard to grab them all – taking two or three in their arms at a time to save the babies and they’re freaking out and they’re yelling and it’s all becoming kind of crazy. Then suddenly one of the guys gets out of the river and he takes off running, and his fellow fisherman yells at him, “Where are you going? Where are you going? What are you doing? We’ve, got to catch these babies!” And he yells back over his shoulder, “I’m running upstream to see who’s putting these babies in the river!” 

It’s a simple story. But it’s really powerful. We all have a strong built-in drive to be reactive. In moments like this – in a time where we are working frantically to save babies, the impulse to go upstream is one that is fundamentally strategic.  Make no mistake, going upstream involves sacrifice. First, you are going to lose some babies as only one fisherman is left to carry on alone. But there is more that you will sacrifice if you go upstream – you risk your reputation. How can you leave these babies behind? What kind of person are you to shirk this most important duty?  And just as powerful as the pressure the holds us back from going upstream is the recognition we get for remaining downstream. Who would ever criticize us for working to save babies? The business of saving babies is noble work. It’s heroic. We can do it every day and go to bed each night feeling a sense of peace that we did something good – something worth doing.

But there’s a problem. If the two fishermen stay downstream and continue in their efforts to save babies, over time they will grow tired. They will burn out. No one can operate in emergency mode forever. It’s just not sustainable. And so, as the noble fishermen wear down what will happen? Babies will be lost. And while no one will blame the fishermen or speak ill of their work and dedication, the larger cause of saving babies will have been lost. There is only one way to save the babies, and that is to go upstream and solve the problem at its source.

Easier said than done.

The ability to stop the work we are doing right now and take the time to think and act strategically takes great courage and discipline. It’s not only easy to become immersed in the tactical nature of our work, it’s rewarded in some very powerful ways. So we remain focused on the moment, invested in the crisis of the day and what happens is that over time we lose our ability to act without a crisis. All of a sudden we find that we have become a “crisis-driven” organization, and then it’s just a matter of time before we fall behind the strategic curve.

Upstream/Downstream Model

“Upstream/Downstream” is a model that we developed to guide Evolutionary Leaders through an analysis of organizational innovation, change and optimization. The “upstream” impulse is one that focuses on source elements for a successful business – such as discovery of new ideas, identifying key vendor relationships, the need for strong economic communities, recruiting for the “employee of the future” and so on…  Spending time on upstream factors for success is something most organizations neglect in favor of more urgent and demanding “downstream” activities that involve day-to-day operations, service, and management. Ultimately, Upstream/Downstream is about striking the perfect balance between strategy and operations.


The Upstream/Downstream model is a classic 2X2 matrix with “upstream” and “downstream” anchoring the X axis poles and “operations as usual” and “next opportunity” anchoring the Y axis poles. By thinking through each quadrant, you can systematically consider where and how your organizational resources are currently spent and what needs to change in order to accomplish your aspirational vision.

EXECUTION. The Execution quadrant represents the day-to-day tasks of delivery – the results your organizations produces day in and day out. For example, if you were operating a hamburger stand, Execution would mean the tasks and behaviors necessary to delivery hamburgers to customers, such as cooking the patties, preparing the buns, constructing the burgers, serving customers and processing payments. It’s also the “saving babies” emergency tasks such as covering for employees who call in sick, running out for more pickles when the lunch rush exceeds supply, and literally putting out that fire that suddenly sparks up in the kitchen!

ENGAGEMENT.  The Engagement quadrant represents the necessary preparation that must go into ensuring Execution delivery is possible. This might include designing processes, securing vendors, developing products, hiring and training employees, and marketing. For the hamburger stand it would involve activities like finding a cheese supplier, ordering stock, creating radio ads, scheduling staff, performing accounting activities, etc.

DISCOVERY. The Discovery quadrant represents the act of seeking out the next big idea, change, innovation, or shift that your organization should consider to succeed in the future. This is the area where strategy is considered and aspirational vision is set. Discover involves “casting your net wide” to ensure you don’t miss the next opportunity for your company. If you are operating a hamburger stand this might look like attending food & beverage conferences, networking with other small business owners, reading up on the latest restaurant technology, and visiting new regions or countries to get new ideas for innovating on the classic burger. You might be among the first to catch the scent of a new trend toward chicken burgers on waffles or healthy veggie patties made from wheat grass!

DEVELOPMENT. The Development quadrant represents bringing new ideas from Discovery into life. It’s where you can take an idea and prototype it, or take a current process and innovate on it, test it, and evaluate its viability. In the example of the hamburger stand this might be where you learn that the healthy wheatgrass patty might work well in the Los Angeles market where you discovered it, but fails miserably in the test run you conducted at location in your hometown.  Or maybe you find that by adding the innovative topping of “bacon relish” to your list of add-ons you see a jump in sales of 7%. You get the idea…

Using the Model

Most organizations will find that the vast majority of their efforts and resources are directed into the “Execution” quadrant. This is a natural outcome of our propensity to be reactive. Execution is a high-energy, immediate gratification kind of place – who wouldn’t want to be where the action is? And Execution is demanding, it’s a hungry beast that constantly needs to be fed. If you neglect it, you fall behind or your standards slip, and your business suffers. Execution is, for most organizations, the “public-facing” element of your operation, and therefore one you can always justify spending time on. Just like saving babies.

The upshot of this analysis is that you likely have very little strategic bandwidth in your organization. And that’s a tough reality for any pie-in-the-sky aspirational visions for the future. It means that even if you have a clear plan for the transformational change you want to see, it’s unlikely to happen unless you can begin to build in the discipline and formal processes that will encourage Upstream activities to take place – every day.

Try using this model to guide your next strategic discussion. Think about how much time you are spending in each quadrant and how you can spend more time outside of the “crisis” mode of Execution. Even the smallest changes can make a big difference. Give it a try – and let us know how it works for you!


The image above offer one example of how a financial services business might consider the Upstream/Downstream model as it relates to business resource investment and activities. Downstream is about “The Process” – the business has to compete on rates, engage in safe and sound underwriting, leverage savvy marketing techniques and expand reach to serve new customers. “The Action” point represents the moment of access – the customer walks in the door, picks up the phone, or logs onto the website. “The Source” describes the kind of environment that has to be present for the business to operate successfully. For example, a local credit union is going to thrive better in a community that is economically healthy than one that is struggling with joblessness, poverty and drugs. Investing in efforts that strengthen education, job creation, social systems, political leadership and economic growth in the region are “Upstream” strategies to ensure an environment in which the business can thrive.

In each phase of the model ask yourself:

  • What are the choke points that need to be removed?
  • What are the source elements behind the challenges and opportunities for my organization?
  • What are the Upstream factors the most impact my goals?
  • Are there key partners that I need Upstream and Downstream to make my vision a reality?
  • What are the Upstream and Downstream concerns of my partners?
  • How can I better align my own strategy and planning with the Upstream/Downstream cycle of my key partners and stakeholders?

In Evolutionaries we offered a language to describe the type of leader who conducts teams, organizations, communities and even nations through positive transformational change. We described characteristics these leaders have in common, offered a diagnostic tool to test whether you might be an Evolutionary Leader and tips for how to develop your Evolutionary potential.  (To learn if you are an Evolutionary take the test .)

What we did not do in our first book is give solid, instructive examples of exactly how Evolutionaries create transformational change.

Transformational Change is Difficult

If you’re like most hard-working people today, your job consists of performing a sort of “triage” every day. There is always some fire to put out, some conflict to resolve, 1000 emails to respond to and customer demands to meet. Every day is a juggling act that you have to master just to survive.  And then there is the organization’s “strategic plan.”  If your organization is anything like most of the companies we see, that strategic plan seems to have very little to do with your day-to-day efforts. If you find yourself saying, “This strategic outcomes exercise is not relevant to my job right now,” odds are that you are right. The problem with most strategic planning efforts is that there is too big a gap between the vision of the organization and the triage efforts taking place on the front lines. There is too much slack in the rope.  Organizational leaders pull on one end thinking they are having an effect, but the folks on the other end don’t feel a thing. You find yourself pulling and pulling if you want to make an impact. At the same time, when your people finally feel that “jerk” as the rope pulls tight they experience whiplash given the intensity of the triage environment in which they operate. It’s not a good feeling, it builds resentment, and often results in the belief that, “Leadership just doesn’t get it!” So change efforts suffer as people dig in their heels more solidly, feeling justified in doing so as “No one appreciates the herculean work they do each day!”

From Vision to Reality

The solution is to find a method for getting out in front of the day-to-day “emergency” tasks that suck up all of our time and energy so that we can gain a clear and compelling vision for what we want to achieve. Making this shift is critical if you want to achieve truly transformational change – it’s about you and your people working at the highest level of your leadership and visionary ability. It’s an aspirational commitment to make things better.

You can’t stop performing triage, we are not saying that! But if that is all you ever do, nothing will ever be better. And so we have to first begin by thinking in two areas at the same time: (1) what tasks must I do each day? And (2) what are the incremental changes that will matter tremendously to our success in the future?  It’s thinking about where we are today and at the same time where we want to be tomorrow. If we can fence off the triage work in our minds for a moment, what does that give us permission to dream of for a new future? This act should be FUN. It should feel like a breath of fresh air. It should be motivational. What it cannot be is irrelevant.

About Carmen Voillequé

CEO of Best Practices Media.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Voillequé is a senior consultant and partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences and the CEO of Best Practice Media. Her background features deep experience in education, curriculum development, and management training. Voillequé works with a wide range of client groups including government agencies, financial institutions, and health care companies. Last year Voillequé completed a scope of work that allowed all of the public and private agencies who serve the needs of children in Oregon to plan and work together to maximize resources. She is also a sought after speaker and strategic planner with a reputation for tackling tough issues.