Upstream thinking is realising the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t the real problem.

So you get upstream of it.

Every year, agencies all over the world do anti drink-drive commercials.

Every year the commercials tell you how bad it is to drive drunk.

Every year they try to top the previous year, with even more shocking deaths, gruesome disfigurements, harrowing bereavement, etc.

Every year everyone agrees that driving drunk is a terrible thing.

And then what happens?

They get drunk.

And forget all about the commercials.

Because they don’t know they’re drunk.

They still think they’re sober.

So they get in the car and drive.

Why hasn’t anyone figured it out yet.

It’s no good talking to a drunk.

When he’s sober he’ll agree with you.

When he’s drunk he’s not listening.

Yet every year, everyone still does the same commercials.

And wonders why they’re not working.

The US Department of Transportation didn’t do that.

They realised there’s no point in talking to a drunk, even when he’s sober.

So they thought upstream of the problem.

The problem isn’t necessarily to convince him not to drive.

The problem is simply to stop him driving.

So they talked to the person next to him.

They ran a campaign with the line, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

It featured the advice:

“Put him in a cab.

Put him to bed.

Take his keys.

If you’re a real friend, you won’t let him drive.”

How powerful is that?

Your commercial can’t be there to talk to a drunk when he’s about to get into his car.

You can’t stop a drunk driving.

But your commercial can talk to someone who can stop the drunk driving.

So you can solve the problem another way.

That’s upstream thinking.