August 3, 2023

The Power of Upstream Thinking

By: Jennifer Ogden, Marisa Ricciardi

How Challenging Assumptions and Asking the Right Questions Drives Sustainable Growth


This article was originally published in Advertising Week.

Listening to some of the preeminent thought leaders of our time, a recurring concept keeps surfacing: upstream thinking or the idea that in order to solve the most urgent problems, we must first ask the right questions. This notion was prevalent at the Wall Street Journal’s recent Future of Everything Festival. Listening to a host of speakers from different backgrounds and different specializations—from the former Chairman and CEO of United Airlines to Michelle Obama to Mayor Adams—when faced with complex problems, challenging times, and seemingly chronic and intractable hurdles, the need to up-level our thinking and go “upstream” with the questions we ask is critical to arriving at a truly innovative and sustainable solution.

Child psychologists often employ upstream thinking when tackling behavioral problems rooted in developmental issues; their expertise lies in understanding how behaviors are learned or unlearned in children. As it happens, we can apply the same principles to any context, including business. After all, a significant aspect of a marketer’s job is understanding the psychology of consumer behavior. Applying the techniques used by child psychologists can reveal valuable insights and unlock opportunities across a range of industries.

For example, Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and renowned expert in behavioral change, has highlighted the significance of upstream thinking in business contexts. Drawing from her experience working with individuals and organizations, Kennedy has emphasized the need to understand the psychological factors that drive behavior. In a TEDx talk, she explained, “To truly address challenges and achieve sustainable growth, businesses must go beyond surface-level symptoms and examine the behavioral roots. By challenging assumptions and understanding the motives behind consumer behavior, businesses can develop strategies that resonate with their target audience and drive meaningful change.”

Meanwhile, Emily Oster, known for her work in applied microeconomics, stresses how challenging underlying assumptions in business decision-making is essential, making the point that many businesses fall into the trap of relying on outdated assumptions and failing to adapt to changing circumstances. Questioning assumptions is crucial for businesses to remain agile and responsive in today’s dynamic markets, as Oster sees it. By going upstream and uncovering the underlying causes of problems, she observes, businesses can develop innovative solutions and gain a competitive edge.

Another thought leader who has tapped into this mindset is Mo Tooker, executive VP of The Hartford, a leading insurance and financial services company. Tooker believes that many businesses get stuck in a reactive mindset, focusing solely on fixing immediate problems rather than addressing their underlying causes. He observes that upstream thinking allows companies to step back and take a holistic view of their operations. By questioning assumptions and exploring alternative approaches, Tooker believes businesses can identify hidden opportunities and achieve long-term growth.

Considering the insights of such leaders, it becomes clear that upstream thinking is a powerful approach that challenges conventional wisdom and unlocks new possibilities.


Applying Upstream Thinking to Business

In today’s rapidly changing market, where various conflicting forces are at play simultaneously, it’s not surprising that many businesses are losing their momentum and seeking direction. Often, when clients encounter obstacles or reach a plateau, they tend to focus on the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes. Many businesses view outcomes as binary: either something worked or didn’t work. Consequently, they merely repeat what worked in the past and build upon it rather than questioning the assumptions that led to success or failure.

For instance, they may attribute their struggles to ineffective advertising or marketing without considering the assumptions they are making and whether they are asking the right questions. Instead of solely focusing on the current challenges at hand, it is important to evaluate the inputs and assumptions that led to those circumstances and ask the right questions to challenge those assumptions. This approach can unleash fresh thinking and produce transformative outcomes.

Upstream thinking is akin to first principles, a scientific methodology often employed in new product development. First principles ask us to look at the baseline assumptions, challenge their very foundation, and consider if there is another way forward. It also holds significant potential for driving organizational behavior shifts and creating innovative solutions to longstanding problems. First principles involves breaking down assumptions and challenging them to uncover new insights.

Similarly, upstream thinking seeks to identify the source of a problem—the behavioral root—and the fundamental question that needs asking. By going further upstream in our thinking, we can change outcomes and unlock new opportunities.


Adopting Upstream Thinking

That said, adopting upstream thinking requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to embrace change and uncertainty. It requires rigor and the desire to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions, which some might find uncomfortable territory. However, by combining upstream thinking with a growth mindset and a fresh perspective, we can ask different questions and find new answers.

In a market characterized by constant change and “pivot fatigue,” it’s crucial to examine the assumptions underlying our actions and challenge them for potential growth. Many businesses operate under the assumption that what worked in the past will continue to work now. However, circumstances change, and binary judgments of “good” or “bad” may no longer hold true. By going upstream and asking different questions, we can reassess whether we are solving the right problems and unlock new paths to growth.

In our marketing agency, we have encountered situations where challenging assumptions led to transformative outcomes. For example, one client believed its brand had no particular meaning in the marketplace, despite having a billion-dollar business and an array of divisions and clients. A new CMO proposed renaming the brand after a successful tech product, but upon digging deeper, we discovered that the assumption was flawed. The company’s true competitive advantage lay in the shared values that kept its customers loyal. Moreover, the supposedly groundbreaking product was considered outdated. By challenging their assumptions, we redirected their focus and unlocked enormous growth potential.

The process of upstream thinking can be transformative for businesses. It encourages a shift from a reactive approach to a proactive one, focusing on underlying causes rather than superficial symptoms. By questioning assumptions and challenging the status quo, organizations can unlock hidden opportunities and gain a competitive advantage in their industries.


Harnessing Upstream Thinking for Sustainable Growth

Upstream thinking can be a powerful tool for businesses to challenge assumptions, uncover hidden opportunities, and drive growth. By going beyond surface-level problems and digging deep into the behavioral roots, we can unlock insights that have the potential to reshape entire industries.

While embracing upstream thinking requires courage, a growth mindset, and a fresh perspective, the rewards can be extraordinary. As business leaders navigate an ever-changing landscape, adopting upstream thinking can be the key to staying ahead of the curve and achieving sustainable growth for the long term.

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