How to be more proactive in life and business

Have you ever wondered how important it is to be proactive? As I was reading Upstream by Dan Heath, he discusses the benefits of being proactive and how best to identify and address hidden problems in a complex system.

Photo by Marc Zimmer | Accessed on

Main impacts

  1. Aim to prevent, not react
  2. Think in systems
  3. Make it personal

Aim to prevent, not react

Ideally, we need to do more than just react to problems. The goal should be to try and prevent problems from happening in the first place. Dan describes this as going “upstream,” from the quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.

-Bishop Desmond Tutu

A good way to start with this is to notice what problems seem to be common, either with your customers, community, or just in your life. Once you’ve found the common problem, you need to figure out what’s going wrong to reduce occurrences.

For example, at Expedia, they wanted to reduce the number of customer service calls, so they took the time to look at what the common issues were. They noticed that a huge percentage of the calls were about the customer’s itinerary. So they put systems in place to help people access their itinerary, such as an automated option to resend their itinerary instead of talking to a service agent. Once they made it easier for people to access their itinerary, they noticed a huge drop in service calls.

Often times systems reinforce the issues as they are not a specific person or department’s problem. For instance, the customer service calls at Expedia were being dealt with properly – promptly and satisfactorily – so there seemed to be no need to change the current system. If anything they were showing that customer service was performing exceptionally, as they were addressing so many customer issues smoothly.

Sometimes it takes a shift in perspective to identify widespread problems, as they may seem normal.

Think in systems

In connection with the point above, often to be proactive you need to think in systems not just linear reactive pathways. System thinking is important for both identifying and addressing upstream issues. This section will talk more about how to address issues within a system.

Consider everyone

A key part of working within a system is identifying everyone involved or connected to the problem and engage them in finding a solution.

One way to do find all relevant people is to think of an individual experiencing the problem (ideally someone you actually know) and look at everyone they could interact with.

An example discussed in the book was dealing with domestic violence within a community. It discusses how someone handling a domestic violence case noticed that the woman had a cast on her arm, and the break didn’t match the story given in the medical record. That cast meant that the woman had actually sought medical help and no one noticed the warning signs.

When looking to make upstream changes to prevent domestic violence, they made sure to involve people from all aspects of society to increase the number of people who could notice the signs and be able to help.

For instance, they developed a risk assessment checklist for nurses and health care workers to see if a patient is at risk of violence from someone in their life. They also noticed that people who were being released on the condition of wearing an ankle monitor might not receive the monitor until a few days after release, giving them an opportunity to be in contact with and possibly attack someone. So they made sure that they received the ankle monitor directly upon their release. Also, if there is a household with a history of domestic violence calls, they had police drive by on a regular basis to make sure everything is okay.

The goal was to find as many ways to improve the system so that people didn’t fall through the cracks and to increase opportunities for people to notice the warning signs.


Systems are complex, which means it can be difficult to predict how systems will react to changes. It also means that you may not see direct results from your changes.

For instance, if you have a police officer stand at a corner, it may cause people to drive more cautiously and might prevent accidents. But it’s very difficult to track or identify what has been prevented.

Since it’s near impossible to track what has been prevented, its also far less common to encourage preventative behaviour. It’s much harder to show results from having a police officer act as a visual warning to increase safety than another police officer giving out traffic tickets. It’s easier to track, record, and reward individuals based on number of tickets (reactionary) given out than possible preventative behaviour.

As it’s difficult to predict how a system will react to changes, you need to have a way to track feedback. The feedback will help identify if changes are improving the system or if you need to adjust your approach. Looking for feedback requires you to actively be looking for changes and be committed to continually improving the system.

An example of this would be to track the domestic violence rates within a community, or maybe within a school looking at graduation rates. It may take years to see an impact within these clear quantitative (numerical) indicators, so it’s also useful to see if there are also qualitative (descriptive) indicators that you can track.

Make it personal

The more you can connect the problem to a specific person, the easier it will be to start identifying solutions. So if you start thinking about how we can help Ariana, then you’re able to focus on improving that individual’s situation.

By narrowing in on specific people, you’re able to get more context and delve into the nitty-gritty of how interconnected the system is. It also gives you a clear example of how an individual is affected and an easy way to see progress firsthand.

Overall, when you make it personal, it also makes it more concrete and actionable. Then you can take all that you learn from an individual’s situation to start helping other people with the same problem.

One of the examples in the book was when teachers in the Chicago Public School system wanted to improve graduation rates. They noticed a good indication of how many students will graduate was how well those students do in freshman year, so the school and teachers all started focusing on the students in grade 9 (freshman year). They changed the system by putting the best teachers in grade 9 classes, and making sure that teachers were meeting with others that shared the same students rather than the same subjects (i.e., all of Ariana’s teachers would meet, rather than all of the English teachers). This way the teachers could all work together to identify ways to help each individual, like Ariana. It ended up being hugely successful, and after a few years, they had saw the graduation rate increase and stay at that level.

Final thoughts

I like how this reframed the concept of being proactive in a way that was very tangible. There were so many clear examples of how this worked and the immense benefits that come from identifying how to go upstream and remove the issue before it happens.

I don’t think the concept of “be proactive” is novel to any of us. But this went so much deeper and discussed how it can be useful for both individuals and businesses.

It was interesting how much it highlighted the complexity, and the importance of getting everyone involved. I think that’s a point that’s often overlooked when discussing the importance of being proactive.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!