Problem Blindness, Salmon, and Chicago Public Schools

enrichment resources Oct 22, 2020

What does salmon running have to do with ISO? How can this enhance high school graduation rates?

Throughout my career of training, consulting, and auditing organizations and processes, it was common to see weak corrective action systems. There was acceptance that the problem was a part of life (problem blindness) and disbelief that the problems could truly be fixed. Band-aid solutions abounded.

Our society rewards reactive responses to problems. Have you ever witnessed recognition, and perhaps awards, going to people or teams who have “saved the day” by stopping a problem from becoming a disaster? Organizations often throw resources at a problem and avoid putting in the effort to prevent the problems in the first place. This approach does not fix the systemic issues that are pervasive causes of the problem. Just like salmon, to solve a problem, we must go upstream.

The new book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen demonstrates the opposite of problem blindness. It includes a wide variety of examples in everyday language to demonstrate getting to the sources of problems to resolve them. Some examples are simple issues and others are complex societal challenges that require deep cross-functional involvement and passion to continue in the face of multiple obstacles certain to arise.

The advantage of this book is that if you can begin to understand proactive (upstream) vs. reactive (downstream) actions in the examples presented, you will be able to apply this mindset to your family processes and work systems too. We really can start to whittle away at problem blindness and use our resources to make the world a better place for everyone.

I realize this sounds altruistic and perhaps crazy, yet I do believe that we each have the power to make a significant difference in the world. Understanding the basics about problem-solving techniques, seeking diverse and cross-functional perspectives, and appreciating what we each bring to the table sets the stage for learning and success.

Here is an example of problem blindness from my personal life:

You may have heard about Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the challenges CPS faces. As a white suburban mom of privileged children, I had no real understanding of the challenges the CPS students and teachers faced. This was my problem blindness.

I volunteered with Destination Imagination (DI) as Team Manager for my children over several years and fell in love with the program. Some people see it as a team building extracurricular outside of team sports. It is so much more than that. The three pillars of DI are teamwork, creativity, and problem solving. I quickly realized how impactful this program could be and started writing grants to bring DI to underserved students in Chicagoland.

After DI received funding from the Motorola Foundation, I started to meet CPS students and teachers. The goal of working with CPS students was to give them the opportunity to benefit from the creative problem solving I witnessed in the suburbs. Once in the schools, it was impossible to ignore the poor conditions in the schools. For example, the buildings needed repair, the students heard a lot of negative language, and that negative energy drained their natural enthusiasm for life. This is when their challenges became REAL to me. They were robbed of being able to speak up, be heard, or contribute. Constantly. By introducing the students to DI, they were encouraged to think outside the box and push the boundaries of what was possible.

Getting to know these students, their teachers, and their parents had an impact on their lives and mine. Being able to contribute was a gift because we were able to open minds and hearts to recognize the problems in front of us and start to look at these problems in new ways.

In Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, one story about CPS is their commitment to freshmen to try to improve graduation rates. It was exciting to see this example in the book since I lived it! Some of our best DI events were for freshmen to give them the experience of creative problem solving in a safe space and explore their natural talents. In one especially fun (and challenging) evening, we had the top 100 Motorola Solutions engineers from around the world and 110 freshmen from the South Side Chicago school that Motorola Solutions sponsored. One of the memorable exchanges of the evening was when a Danish engineer told me he thought the Instant Challenges were too difficult for the students. I explained that we (DI) use the same challenges with very young children (5+ years old), and they succeed. I also explained that the younger children had not been told they were "wrong" every day of their life, so they were willing to try anything. As the evening progressed and the student teams rotated through the Instant Challenges, the freshmen became braver to experiment and could laugh together as they tried new approaches. Small steps in a good direction! We witnessed students blossoming, trying new things, becoming resilient in the face of setbacks, and learning along the way!  This is what you can see in the video--the students tackling new challenges and applying problem solving skills.

Just like salmon fighting to get to their spawning location with every fiber within them, taking corrective actions to put in systematic or holistic fixes requires focus and relentless dedication to keep looking upstream for the root causes.

In summary, I invite you to look around and start to notice the problem blindness you may be experiencing. Are there processes in your life where you have given up, thinking there are no solutions? That this is just the way things are? Maybe there are ways to go upstream and initiate holistic system fixes. Imagine the mindset shifts this could open up!

If you need fresh eyes or some inspiration within your team, schedule a call with me. We offer a workshop that provides insights as to how your team members approach problem solving. The interactive workshop embeds challenges and problem-solving tools to help your team generate creative ideas and innovative solutions.

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