Upstream: Finding the Source of Complex Problems and Leverage Points for Change

by freya March 15, 2022

by Freya Bradford, Director of Systems Change and Learning


This is the second in a series of blogs about different aspects of systems change work. Next month I will explore designing interventions that change systems and finally how we can learn together as we go.  

This series is about making different choices about how we work and what we work on when we are aiming for community-level change in our most complex problems. These are choices that require we walk upstream, together, to investigate why our problem looks the way it does downriver.  

But, where is the proverbial “upstream?” 

How do we get there? 

And, what do we do when we are there? 

This second blog in the series will attempt to demystify this metaphor and share some tips and tools for changemakers at this stage of systems change work.  

Upstream treks are an important part of problem solving for anyone tackling complex problems. Complex problems are different from their cousins - simple, complicated, or chaotic problems - and require an approach well-suited to their nature. (The Cynefin Framework first laid out these distinct problem types.) 

To determine if your group is working with a complex problem, you will want to first name the problem you are trying to address, and then consider the following questions adapted from the Omidyar Group’s Complexity Spectrum in the Systems Practice Workbook:

  • Are the problem and its causes well understood, either by the general public, or by experts?
  • Is there a high degree of agreement among stakeholders and experts about what to do?
  • Is the problem relatively self-contained and not intertwined with its broader social, political, or economic environment?
  • Is your goal short-term?  

The more “no” answers you have to these questions, the more likely it is that you are dealing with a complex problem. To move beyond temporary “quick fixes,” or just a relocation of a problem in the system, it will require exploring the upstream causes of your problem with other stakeholders to find points where you might have leverage over longer-term, durable change.  


Artwork by Henry Bradford.pngWhere is Upstream?  

“Upstream” isn’t really one place, but many. For me, the metaphor works when I consider upstream as the many tributaries that are running into the water we now find ourselves in. Some of the tributaries may be adding sediment to the water, or pollution that is deteriorating the quality of our water (making our problem worse). Whereas some may be flowing from a wetland that is naturally filtering and purifying our water (or improving conditions). Systems practice asks us to explore these many tributaries as the sources that are giving rise to the current conditions we find downstream. But how do we find these tributaries? 

First, create some boundaries for your exploration by creating what David Peter Stroh in his book Systems Thinking for Social Change calls a focusing or framing question. A framing question very clearly asks Why your problem exists today. The example provided by Stroh can work in any complex problem space. 

A Framing Question: “Why, often despite our best efforts, have we been unable to achieve a certain goal, or solve a particular problem?” 

For example:  

  • Why does our region lack adequate housing options for all?  
  • Why is there a shortage of early childhood care opportunities?  
  • Why are we losing farmland and farming? 
  • Why is the prevalence of youth mental health challenges growing rapidly? 

The clues to where you want to head next are within the current state of the problem. Gather as much existing data as you can about what your problem looks like in your community.  

  • Who, or what, experiences the problem? To what extent?  
  • Who, or what, experiences the problem most severely? Disaggregate your data to discover how different populations experience the problem – neighborhoods, schools, races, genders, incomes, etc.  
  • What trends do you notice over time? Do rates of the problem go up and down? Have rates gone up sharply, when? Or, has it been a steady change over a long period of time? Simple Behavior Over Time Graphs can help.  
  • What patterns do you notice? As one thing has gone up/down, what happens to other things?  

This current state picture will ground your group in a comprehensive understanding of the problem, help you refine your thinking, and give you ideas of the first upstream tributaries you might want to explore. Later, it will help you set goals for a future state you would like to create through your work together.  


How do you get upstream?  

“How many problems in our lives and in our society are we tolerating simply because we’ve forgotten that we can fix them.” – Dan Heath, Upstream 

Getting upstream requires curiosity and a lot of inquiry. Many of us have worked so long in our fields, we have stopped asking why the problem we are addressing exists at the current levels it does. Or we might feel that our job is to help those experiencing the problems, not to find the causes of them. Or we might feel like the systemic causes are so far out of our control that it isn’t worth the time to investigate.   Systems practice is for those that no longer want to accept the status quo and are ready, and able, to think beyond the confines of their current vantage point in the system.   

Many systems practice tools are designed to help us inquire into a problem through multiple perspectives. Many use stakeholder interviews or focus groups and begin by asking people your framing question. Then, you might turn some of the patterns and trends you uncovered into questions as well. Follow-on questions using the four framing questions above might look something like: 

  • Why is the cost of development so high?  
  • Why is there a shortage of qualified early childhood care professionals? 
  • Why is the average age of farmers increasing? 
  • Why are the suicide rates of teens increasing at such a high rate?  

To walk deeper upstream, keep asking “why” to the responses you hear. You may find yourself going deeper up one “tributary” and then backtracking to go deeper on another path. These root cause inquiry methods are used across many disciplines. Some examples are 5 Whys, or Fishbone Diagramming.   

A key to using these tools in systems practice is to interview a wide range of people including those with personal experience with the issue you are working to address and those with organizational and governmental experience from different parts of the system. Be open to hearing and documenting different perspectives on the issue, even disconfirming information. Frances Westley et al. in Getting to Maybe: How the World Has Changed reminds us that in this work “a certain mindset is crucial, framed by inquiry not certitude, one that embraces paradoxes and tolerates multiple perspectives.”  

The goal is not to get the “right” or even complete picture or map, but to get something that helps to refine your collective understanding about what may be happening to create the problem and is useful as you try to address the issue.  


What do you look for?  

“Our brains are naturally drawn to linear cause and effect, and in a complex world, that’s often the wrong neighborhood.” – Jennifer Garvey & Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times 

Through your inquiry process, it can be helpful to look for and probe for the system components that may be either enabling or inhibiting your problem. Things like the components outlined by FSG in the Water of Systems Change

  • Policies: Government and organizational rules and priorities 
  • Practices: The activities of organizations and networks working on the issue 
  • Resource Flows: How money, people, knowledge, information, and other assets and infrastructure are allocated and distributed 
  • Relationships & Connections: Quality of connections and communication occurring among actors in the system, especially among those with differing histories and viewpoints 
  • Power Dynamics: The distribution of decision-making power, authority, and both formal and informal influence among individuals and organizations 
  • Mental Models: Habits of thought—deeply held beliefs and assumptions and taken-for-granted ways of operating that influence how we think, what we do, and how we talk 

It is also imperative to look for the interconnections between factors. When one thing changes, does something else happen to other factors in the system? Many groups will try to diagram these relationships in either connection circles or causal loop diagrams. Systems Innovation (Si) has a collection of online canvases that are free to use to make diagrams like this that show how factors are interrelated.  


What do you do with what you find upstream? 

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.” - Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer  

Once your team has gathered information from a diverse set of stakeholders, you can share a summary, key systems stories or themes, or systems maps with an even wider set of system actors to “socialize” your information. Ask them to reflect back to you what they see in your information, what they think it is missing, and what they don’t understand. This will help you refine your work even more and, as they say in this work, become less and less wrong.  

The Healthy Food Access Hub, a partnership between GoodwillNMI’s Food Rescue, Northwest Food Coalition and Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, went upstream in 2017 to explore the framing question: What factors affect a Food Insecure Person’s ability to meet their nutritional needs? The answer was presented in a causal loop map that helped them identify new points of leverage. By 2021, the partnership increased healthy food for local pantry clients by 28% or 380,000lbs.





All this work is to help your group see your issue with new eyes so you can identify places in the system where you might be able to have leverage, or where an action could have an outsized and more durable impact.  

To spot leverage points, you might try looking at your summaries or maps that document what you uncovered upstream and ask: 

  • Is there a system factor that is highly connected to other factors, that if it changed, it would have wide ripple effects? 
  • Is there a factor that seems to be nudging things in the right direction that could be amplified? 
  • Where can we shift power to those closer to the issue? 
  • Is the way people think about the problem or solution contributing to the problem?  
  • How might I/we be unintentionally contributing the problems we seek to solve? 
  • Where can information or resources be shared across the system for greater impact? 

In the next contribution in this series we will turn our attention to how to design interventions that act on the leverage points you have identified.  


Micro Practices 

You don’t have to convince your partners that it is time for an upstream trek to begin practicing some of the principles described. You can try the following today: 

  • Disaggregate the data you have or ask for data sources to disaggregate their data – find out who/what experiences your problem most severely  
  • Inquire into your own and others thinking - Ask “I’m curious, what leads you to that thinking or idea?” 
  • Think up and downstream – What might be influencing this situation? What might this situation be influencing? 
  • Consider how might you or your organization or group might be unintentionally contributing to a problem you are trying to solve 



Freya Bradford is the Director of Systems Change & Learning at Rotary Charities of Traverse City. She loves to talk about systems change so please feel free to contact her with any feedback or questions:



This contribution is heavily indebted to several others including those listed in this piece and here.   

Systems Practice. A Free 8-week online course created by the Omidyar Group and hosted by the Acumen Academy. Seventeen teams from the region have been through this course with the support of a local coach provided by Rotary Charities. The next course begins May 22, 2022. Contact Freya Bradford to inquire about Rotary Charities' free support.  

Berger, J. & Johnston, K. (2015). Simple habits for complex times. Stanford University Press. 

Heath, D. (2020). Upstream. The quest to solve problems before they happen. Avid Reader Press. 

Kramer, Mark R., John Kania, and Peter Senge. "The Water of Systems Change." Report, FSG, May 2018. 

Meadows, D. H., & Wright, D. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.  

Senge, P., Hamilton, H., & Kania, J. (2015). The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 13, 27-33. 

Stroh, D.P. (2015). Systems thinking for social change. Chelsea Green Publishing. 

Systems Innovation Si a community platform for social innovators that has dozens of system canvasses that are currently free to use. 

Westley, F., Patton, M. Q., & Zimmerman, B. (2006). Getting to maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto: Random House Canada. 


Art Credit:
Henry Bradford, drawing "Upstream"
Alex Diaz, aerial photo of Folly Beach, SC

Resources Search

Resources Archive